The Bible is unique in its production, preservation, proclamations, and product. In its production, it is a harmonious and unified message of redemption that has emerged out of diversity of authors, circumstances, and literary forms. In its preservation, it has miraculously withstood the ravages of time, persecution, and criticism, and continues to be the best selling book in the world. In its proclamations, it stands alone in its revelation of God’s plan from eternity to eternity and in its life-giving message. In its product, it has changed the course of history, reached more people, and transformed more lives than any other book.
Scripture tells us that there are really two realms: that which is seen and that which is unseen. The first is the realm of apparent reality, the world we know through our minds and our five senses. If it were not for divine revelation, we would be locked into this level without any way of breaking through to the second realm, the world of ultimate reality. Bound to the level of the finite, the relative, and the temporal, we would be unable to find the meaning and purpose we long for that can only come from the level of the infinite, the absolute, and the eternal. There would be no hope of finding answers to the basic questions of life: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? God gave us His Word to deliver us from the power of darkness and to translate us to the domain of light, “the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). The Bible reveals the full scope of the Lord’s creative and redemptive plan for His people. Only in its pages can we gain a perspective on our corporate past, present, and future and realize the overwhelming significance of our new identity as the recipients of “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). By drinking deeply and regularly from the well of God’s Word, our entire value system will be gradually transformed from the temporal to the eternal. The study of Scripture sets our minds on the things above (Col. 3:2), the source of all biological and spiritual life. It enables us to look not “at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). This is the heart of wisdom--plugging into the realm of ultimate reality and walking in the light, life, and love of the Lord. By pursuing the precepts and principles of the Bible, we gain the most important skill of all: the ability to live each area of life under the dominion of the King. The Bible does not tell us to live and learn; it exhorts us to learn and live.
There are several reasons for getting into the Word and letting the Word get into us.
Here are six:
The Bible was not merely written for our information, but for our transformation. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). While the Bible is an inspired revelation from the living God, it requires our response before it can have an impact upon our lives. Scripture is indeed “profitable for doctrine,” but its profit does not stop on the level of doctrine; it must move from the head to the heart to accomplish the purpose for which it was given. God loves us and desires nothing less than our highest good: conformity to the character of His Son. A dynamic relationship with the truth of His Word provides us with the spiritual nourishment we will need to grow into the maturity of Christlikeness.
Exercise: Study 2 Peter 1:2-8 to trace the progressive effect that the knowledge of God and His promises has upon the life of a believer.
The study of Scripture can deliver us from the bondage of a temporal perspective and provide us with an eternal value system. By frequently renewing our minds with the Word (Rom. 12:2), our thinking and behavior come more into conformity with God’s view of significance, purpose, identity, and success. The pursuit of God’s value system leads to fulfillment and joy in contrast to the frustration and unhappiness that result from the pursuit of the world’s value system. See Psalm 5:11; 16:5-8; 105:3-4; Jeremiah 9:23-24; Matthew 6:33; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Philippians 1:21; Colossians 1:10-12.
The study of Scripture provides us with both corrective and preventive medicine. It warns us in advance of the kinds of temptations we can expect (e.g., Prov. 4:10-27; 5:1-23; 1 John 2:15-16), tells us about the process of temptation (see Jas. 1:12-17), and shows us how to deal with temptation (1 Cor. 10:13; Eph. 6:10-18).
The Scriptures reveal God’s moral will for practically every area of life. A working knowledge of the commands, prohibitions, and principles of the Bible will give us wisdom and guidance in the decisions that shape the course of our earthly existence (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 1:2-5), and a divine perspective that will enable us to respond in the right way to our circumstances and rise above them (Jas. 1:5).
The Bible is a progressive revelation of the person, plan, character, mind, love, and will of our Creator. We cannot hope to know Him and His ways apart from time spent in His revealed Word.
Exercise: All but three verses in Psalm 119 contain a reference to the Word of God (variously referred to as God’s laws, decrees, precepts, promises, testimonies, statutes, judgments, ordinances, commands, and words). Read this psalm and record your observations of the beneficial effects of the Scriptures in cultivating a relationship with God.
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible cuts below the facade of appearances and lays bare our secret motivations and plans (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7). As we read it, the Word becomes a mirror that exhibits our true character, exposes areas of self-delusion, and exhorts us to change (see Jas. 1:21-25).
Use vertical time lines and chart these dates as horizontal bars with date and event on top of the bars. Insert maps showing the extent of the empires.
ca. 4000-2200/Sumerian and Akkadian empires in Mesopotamia
ca. 3600-3100/Pre-dynastic period in Egypt
ca. 3500/Hieroglyphic writing in Egypt
ca. 3200/Cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia
ca. 3100-2200/Old Kingdom in Egypt
ca. 3000-1100/Minoan-Mycenaean civilization (Aegean islands)
ca. 3000/First villages and cultures in the Americas
ca. 3000-2500/Early civilization in northern India
ca. 2700/Construction of great pyramids in Egypt
ca. 2500/Aryan invasion of India
ca. 2000-800/Cimmerians in Russia
ca. 2000-200/Phoenician confederacy
ca. 2000-A.D. 300/Kingdom of Kush (Nubia) in Africa
1991-1786/Middle Kingdom in Egypt
ca. 1950-1650/Old Babylonian kingdom
ca. 1900-1200/Hittite empire
1786-1570/Hyksos rule in Egypt
ca. 1700/Code of Hammurabi
ca. 1650/Overthrow of Old Babylonia by the Kassites
1570-1087/New Kingdom in Egypt
ca. 1500-900/Early Vedic Age in India
ca. 1500-1027/Shang Dynasty in China
1450-1423/Reign of Amenhotep II of Egypt (pharaoh of the exodus)
1445/Exodus from Egypt
1405-1000/Hebrew conquest and consolidation of Canaan
1301-1234/Reign of Rameses II of Egypt
ca. 1200-500/Chavin civilization in Peru
ca. 1200-300/Olmec civilization in Central America
ca. 1100-800/Dark Ages of Greek history
1043-931/United Kingdom of Israel (Saul, David, Solomon)
1027-256/Chou Dynasty in China
ca. 1000-900/Migration of Germanic tribes into Europe
ca. 1000-A.D. 600/African nation of Axum (Ethiopia)
931-722/Northern kingdom of Israel
931-586/Southern kingdom of Judah
ca. 900-500/Later Vedic Age in India
ca. 800-400/Etruscan culture in Italy
ca. 800-300/Scythians in Russia
ca. 800/Beginning of Greek city-states
ca. 800/Homer (Iliad and Odyssey)
ca. 800 B.C.-A.D. 200/Nok culture in west Africa
ca. 753/Founding of Rome
ca. 750-612/Assyrian empire
ca. 740-693/Ministry of Isaiah
670/Assyrians conquer Egypt
650-500/Age of the Tyrants in Greece
ca. 640-546/Thales of Miletus
612-539/Babylonian (Chaldean) Empire
605-536/Daniel in Babylon
ca. 604-531/Lao-tzu (Lao-tze), founder of Taoism in China
586-/Nebuchadnezzar destroys Jerusalem
550-529/Reign of Cyrus the Great of Persia
539/Persians conquer Babylon
525/Persians conquer Egypt
509/Establishment of Roman republic
ca. 500-100/Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults in Greece
461-428/Age of Pericles; Athenian democracy
444/Walls of Jerusalem rebuilt under Nehemiah
ca. 432-415/Ministry of Malachi
336-323/Reign of Alexander the Great
321-183/Mauryan Dynasty in India
264-146/Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage
221-171/Ch’in Dynasty in China
185 B.C.-A.D. 78/Greco-Bactrian kingdom in India
171 B.C.-A.D. 220/Han Dynasty in China
ca. 140/Stoic philosophy introduced to Rome 106-43/Cicero
72-4/Herod the Great
ca. 30 B.C.-A.D. 270/Influence of Mithraism in Rome
46-44/Dictatorship of Julius Caesar
37 B.C.-A.D. 100/Flavius Josephus
37-4/Reign of Herod the Great
27 B.C.-A.D. 14/Reign of Augustus Caesar
4 B.C.-A.D. 33/Life of Christ
4 B.C.-A.D. 65/Seneca
A.D. 14-37/Reign of Tiberius
37-41/Reign of Caligula
41-54/Reign of Claudius
54-68/Reign of Nero
69-79/Reign of Vespasian
64/Burning of Rome and first Roman persecution of Christians under Nero
70/Destruction of Jerusalem
78-225/Kushan Dynasty in India
ca. 90-200/Spread of Gnosticism in the Roman Empire
ca. 100-476/Barbarian invasions of Rome
Archaeology is the study of ancient relics, artifacts, and monuments of earlier cultures. Archaeologists seek to reconstruct the setting and history of the nations and civilizations of the past. For the student of Scripture, archaeology makes two significant contributions--illumination and confirmation of the biblical text.
Archaeological discoveries illuminate customs, practices, and obscure passages in the Bible. Excavations, inscriptions, monuments, tablets, pottery, and other artifacts illustrate the background of Scripture and make many biblical accounts more understandable.
Confirmation Archaeology cannot prove the validity of the Bible, but it generally supports its historical accuracy. As a result, there is a greater recognition of the reliability of the Bible as a source book. There are still some difficulties which will require more data before they can be resolved, but the direction of incoming evidence continues to offer positive substantiation of the accuracy of Scripture. Nineteenth and early twentieth century “higher” or literary criticism was influenced by the thought of Darwin and Hegel. This led to a skeptical attitude toward biblical reliability. These scholars made little use of archaeological evidence, partly because archaeology was still in its infancy. However, the flood of archaeological discoveries in the last hundred years has refuted many critical claims and changed attitudes toward the historicity of the biblical accounts. Most archaeologists and historians who work with the external evidence have a growing respect for the accuracy of Scripture. There is an abundance of instances where passages which were doubted by literary critics have been confirmed by archaeological finds.
Surface archaeology involves picking up pottery sherds and identifying them. Excavation archaeology involves layer-by-layer excavation. Excavations normally require several things: (1) a sponsoring school or other institution, (2) permission from the government of the country in which the excavation is to be made, (3) a reputable archaeologist as the director of the dig, (4) a pottery expert for dating of potsherds and pottery, (5) an architect to reconstruct and describe buildings, (6) a photographer to photograph objects in situ (in the original position), (7) helpers and basket carriers to dig trenches and work out in squares from the trench, (8) the decision of the director of board of antiquities of the country as to what must remain in the country for its museums. Ancient cities were buried through floods, fires, invasions, pestilence, refuse and debris, volcanoes, and earthquakes. They appear as mounds or tells (the word “tell” comes form the Arabic word for “mound” or “hill;” cf. Josh. 11:13). Ancient people kept rebuilding cities on the same spots because of water sources, defense, agriculture, and location near major or minor highways. Chronology is largely based on stratigraphy (the sequence of the layers). By its nature, archaeological evidence is fragmentary. Only a tiny fraction of the writings and artifacts of ancient cultures has survived through the centuries. Most sites have never been surveyed, and few of these have been excavated. In addition, only a small fraction of what has been excavated has been examined, and only a portion of this has been published. In many ways, archaeology is as much an art as it is a science; the data is sometimes highly interpretive, and this can lead to disagreements among scholars.
Dating and evidence for the earliest periods of human occupation (the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic) is unclear. After this time, the chronological scale usually follows this outline:
Chalcolithic Age (3500-3000)
Early Bronze Age (3000-2000)
Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500)
Late Bronze Age (1500-1200)
Iron Age (1200-586)
Persian Period (586-331)
Hellenistic Period (331-66)
Roman Period (66 B.C.-A.D. 300)
Byzantine Period (300-637)
Chalcolithic Age (3500-3000)
Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization. The earliest village settlements that have ever been discovered are in the vicinity of Nineveh. Excavations in these settlements show stone tools and weapons, simple buildings, and pottery. Wind instruments were found at Tepe Gawra, one of these early settlements. Later settlements made tools and weapons out of copper as well as stone. This is why this period is called the Chalcolithic (“copper-stone”) Age. Archaeology supports the Genesis portrait of the rapid development of the arts and crafts, agriculture, cattle raising, and the early use of metal. The Sumerian civilization flourished during the Chalcolithic Period and Early Bronze Age.
About 17,000 clay tablets that date to ca. 2300 B.C. from the site of ancient Ebla mention several of the names that are found in the book of Genesis like ab-ra-mu (Abraham), e-sa-um (Esau), and is-ra-ilu (Israel). While these are not the same people, this discovery supports the historicity of the patriarchal narratives. The Ebla Tablets also include a creation and flood account that has several parallels to Genesis 1-11. A set of law codes has also been found in these tablets. The ancient site of Ur was discovered in 1854. Excavations by several archaeologists including Sir Leonard Woolley revealed that as early as 2700 B.C. (hundreds of years before the time of Abraham), Ur was an an impressive cultural center. The mention of camels in Genesis 12:16 and 37:25 was regarded as an anachronism by critics who claimed that camels were not used in the ancient Near East until many centuries after patriarchal times. A variety of discoveries including texts, figurines, a camel hair rope (ca. 2500 B.C.), and camel bones make it clear that camels were known and domesticated though not widely used during this period. A stele (stone monument) of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur (ca. 2044-2007) describes the construction of a temple tower or ziggurat. A clay tablet states that the gods were offended and destroyed the tower, scattered the builders, and confused their speech. A Sumerian version of the tower of Babel story has also been discovered; like the Genesis account, this story spoke of a universal language that was confounded.
The period of 2000 to 1700 B.C. fits the Genesis description of the patriarchal period. Evidence from the Mari Letters, the Nuzi Tablets, and the Alalakh Tablets show that the customs of the early Middle Bronze Age are accurately reflected in the patriarchal narratives. Many of the names found in these texts are similar to those in Genesis (e.g., Laban and Benjamin). These materials support the authenticity of the biblical account and refute the critical view that the patriarchs lived later than the Bible indicates.
Archaeology is challenging earlier ideas about the development of biblical religion. It was commonly held that the religion of the Old Testament evolved from animism and ancestor worship, to fetishism and totemism, to polytheism, to henotheism, to monotheism, to the ethical God of the prophets Amos and Hosea, and finally to the New Testament understanding of God. This view was shaped more by the presuppositions of nineteenth-century philosophy than by external evidence. There is growing evidence that the religion of Israel was an ethical monotheism from its inception. In addition, studies by Albright, Langdon, Zwemer, and others reveal an underlying monotheism behind the polytheism of primitive cultures. Law codes were common during and before the time of Abraham. At Eshnunna, a code of laws of King Bilalama dates to about 1950 B.C. The Lipit-Ishtar code is dated at ca. 1860 B.C., and the codified laws of Hammurabi were written ca. 1700 B.C.
The nineteenth-century excavation of the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh by Layard and Rassam included the discovery of a seven-tablet Babylonian creation epic known as Enuma elish. While there are similarities between this epic and the biblical creation account, they are outweighed by the differences. There is no evidence that the two accounts are related; it appears that both go back to a common source, of which the Babylonian epic is a corruption. The Gilgamesh Epic, a Babylonian account of the flood, was also found at the library of Ashurbanipal. This epic was related to an earlier Sumerian flood account; the Sumerian Noah was Ziusudra, and the Babylonian Noah was Utnapishtim. Another Babylonian work called the Atrahasis Epic contains both a creation and a flood account. Again, there are similarities and profound differences between these accounts and the Genesis 6-9 flood narrative.
The Genesis account was not borrowed from any text now known to us, but knowledge of the flood survived. The major difference is between the polytheistic versus monotheistic interpretation of the events. The Genesis 13:10-11 passage about Lot’s choice of the plain of Jordan was held to be erroneous because of the climate and barrenness of the Jordan Valley in the region of the Dead Sea. But excavations at many sites including Khirbet Kerak, Bethshan, and Bab ed-Dra show that in Lot’s time this was a densely populated and evidently desirable area in which to live.
The battle of the four kings from Mesopotamia against the five kings from Palestine in Genesis 14 was previously regarded as unhistorical. Critics claimed that the names of these kings were fictitious, but archaeological inscriptions from this period show that these names were known. Evidence from the Mari Letters and other sources reveals that Mesopotamian kings did in fact exercise control over Palestine in this early period. The power alliances described in Genesis 14 fit the period of 2000-1700 B.C.
The “iniquity of the Amorites” (Gen. 15:16) during this period of time is well illustrated by the evidence of the Canaanites’ child sacrifice and sexual degradation in their cultic worship of the goddesses Astarte and Anath. Literary critics held that the Hittites mentioned in 40 biblical passages did not exist, or were insignificant if they did exist. However, the Hittite capital was discovered at Boghazkoy in Asia Minor. Excavations have shown that the Hittites were an Indo-European group who ruled a significant empire between ca. 1900 and 1200 B.C.
Genesis 19:24-29 records the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. At least since Roman times, the level of the Dead Sea has been slowly rising. There is evidence that the site of these cities is under the shallow waters of the southern area of the Dead Sea. Late in the first century B.C., the Greek geographer Strabo mentioned ground fissures, ruined settlements, scorched rock, and other evidence of destruction in the southern end of the Dead Sea. The “brimstone and fire” may have resulted from a violent explosion of oil, asphalt, sulphur, and possibly natural gas set off by an earthquake.
The mention of the Philistines in the time of the patriarchs (Gen. 21:34; 26) is usually called an anachronism because there are no records of the Philistines in Palestine prior to 1200 B.C. This is an argument from silence, and it is possible that the early peaceful Philistines of Genesis 26 were Minoans who migrated from the Aegean, and that the later warlike Philistines were dominated by the more aggressive Mycenaeans.
The Horites mentioned in the genealogy of Esau (Gen. 36:20) were previously thought to be cave dwellers. Discoveries have shown that they were the Hurrians, an important people of Western Asia who migrated into Mesopotamia and throughout the Fertile Crescent. Hurrian tablets from about 1800 B.C. were found at Mari, and they are also mentioned in the Ras Shamra texts (ca. 1400 B.C.). There is also evidence that the biblical Jebusites and Hivites were part of the Hurrian circle. As the story of the Israelites moves into Egypt in the latter part of Genesis and the early part of Exodus, a number of Egyptian words and other elements are sprinkled through the Hebrew text. These words and details (e.g., the scene in Gen. 41:42-44) attest to the authenticity and historicity of the biblical account.
It was thought that Semitic people could not have been in Egypt in the time that Genesis says the household of Jacob went to Egypt. But tombs at Beni Hasan show that Semites were in Egypt as early as 2000 B.C.
Exodus 1:8 speaks of “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” A number of scholars believe this relates to the expulsion of the Semitic Hyksos rulers who dominated Egypt around 1786-1570 B.C. The “new king” who enslaved the Israelites may have been the Seventeenth Dynasty ruler Ahmose. Those who favor an early date of 1445 B.C. for the exodus contend that Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt fits well against the details of Exodus 1-15. Moses may have been adopted by Hatshepsut (reigned 1504-1483), daughter of Thutmose I. Thutmose III (reigned 1483-1450) may have been the pharaoh of the oppression, and Amenhotep II (reigned 1450-1423) may have been the pharaoh of the exodus. Amenhotep had no military campaigns in the last part of his reign (if he was the pharaoh of the exodus, his military power would have been severely weakened due to losses in the Red Sea). There is evidence that Amenhotep’s successor, Thutmose IV (reigned 1423-1412), was not his firstborn son (as the pharaoh of the exodus, his firstborn son would have perished in the tenth plague). It has been claimed that the use of straw in making bricks (Exod. 5:7,13) was unnecessary because of the cohesiveness of the Nile mud. But Papyrus Anastasi III indicates that straw was a key ingredient in brickmaking. In addition, straw has been found in many Egyptian mud bricks. Late Bronze Age (1500-1200)
The ten plagues in Exodus 7-12 discredited the gods and godesses of Egypt and demonstrated that Yahweh is the true and living God. They increased in intensity and severity, culminating in human death, including Pharaoh’s own firstborn. Significantly, the plagues related directly to a number of the Egyptian deities, including the frog goddess Hekt and the sun gods Re and Aton. While it has been claimed that the Passover was merely an agricultural feast adapted from the Canaanites, the Canaanite mythological texts in the Ras Shamra tablets reveal the wide gulf between the feasts of Israel and the paganism of the Canaanite festivals.
As noted above, written law codes existed before the time of Moses and even before the time of Abraham. The civil legislation in these Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite codes is sophisticated enough to refute the claim that the laws of the Pentateuch must have been written later than the time of Moses. While there are similarities between the civil laws of Moses and those of the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 B.C.), the differences in the moral and religious injunctions are profound enough to show that the Law of Moses is not an adaptation of the Babylonian code. The abundance of early written material discredits the older view that the Hebrews could not have written during the time of Moses. Pictographic writing dates back to ca. 3300 B.C., and cuneiform ideographic writing began ca. 3000 B.C. Akkadian syllabic writing appeared ca. 2100 B.C., and alphabetic writing (Proto-Sinaitic, Ugaritic, and Phoenician) arose ca. 1800 B.C. According to the documentary hypothesis, the Levitical laws were the work of the priestly school around the time of Israel’s second temple (ca. 500 B.C.). According to this view, the sacrificial and feast system in these laws reflected developments later than the time of Moses. But the Ras Shamra tablets (ca. 1400 B.C.) contain legislation and forms of worship that are similar to those in Leviticus. Studies have shown that the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20-31) as well as the book of Deuteronomy have striking parallels with the form used in Hittite treaties around 1400 B.C. between a sovereign and his vassal. This includes a preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, provision for deposit and periodic public reading, the calling of witnesses, and cursings and blessings formulae. Significantly, the Sinai covenant fits the second-millennium covenant form but not the later first-millennium covenant form. This argues against the documentary hypothesis that the documents of the Pentateuch were not written until the sixth to ninth centuries B.C. Evidence supporting Joshua’s military campaign has been found in excavations of the ancient cities of Hazor, Debir, and Shechem. At the present time, however, only a small amount of Late Bronze Age materials have been found in the sites of Jericho, Gibeon, and Ai.
The biblical account indicates that the Philistines reached the peak of their power in the early eleventh century before the Saul became Israel’s first king, and this harmonizes with the archaeological evidence. The Philistines for a time maintained a military advantage by developing and monopolizing the technology for making iron implements (1 Sam. 13:19-22).
The common critical view is that the establishment of the temple musicians did not occur until the post-exilic period with the building of the second temple. However, external evidence reveals that it is unnecessary to deny the internal biblical evidence that David instituted the temple musicians. Musical guilds were known in Syria and Palestine centuries before the time of David, and a relief from Beni-Hasan in Egypt depicts Semitic craftsmen carrying musical instruments into Egypt ca. 1850 B.C. Egyptian records from the sixteenth to the eleventh centuries B.C. repeatedly refer to Canaanite musicians and instruments.
Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra illustrate clear parallels to the poetic patterns and verbal style of the Hebrew poetry contained in the Psalms and Proverbs. According to 2 Samuel 8:3-6 (cf. 1 Chron. 18:3-6), the Davidic empire extended north to Syria and included the area of Zobah. Some scholars have minimized the extent of David’s empire by claiming that Zobah was in Palestine, but archaeological discoveries confirm that Zobah was north of Damascus in Syria. The great extent of the Solomonic empire (cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26) is consistent with the external evidence that the period of 1100-900 B.C. was a time of political decline for Egypt and Assyria.
Studies of hundreds of primary sources have confirmed the names of over 40 foreign kings mentioned in Scripture.
Solomon’s port city of Ezion-geber could not be found until Nelson Glueck decided to pay attention to the biblical text that described its location; he discovered it exactly where the Bible said it was located.
The period of the divided kingdom began in 931 B.C. when the ten northern tribes of Israel split apart from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Archaeological discoveries have solved what appeared to be discrepancies in the chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah.
Excavations at Samaria have uncovered many pieces of ivory from the level dating to the ninth century B.C. These may have been from Ahab’s “ivory house” (1 Kings 22:39) which was built at that time.
The Moabite Stone written by Mesha, king of Moab in the ninth century B.C., reveals that Omri, the sixth king of Israel, conquered Moab. This stele agrees with the statement in 2 Kings 3:4-5 that Mesha rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab.
Kings Omri and Ahab of Israel are mentioned in the texts of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. Shalmaneser’s Black Obelisk shows King Jehu of Israel (or his emissary) prostrate and paying tribute before him.
The KJV rendering of 1 Chronicles 5:26 led some scholars to think that Pul and Tiglath-Pileser III were two different kings of Assyria. However, two clay tablets describe events during this time in Assyria’s history, one using the name Pul (a Babylonian name [Pulu]), and the other using the name Tiglath-Pileser (an Assyrian name) for the same king. The NKJV correctly translates the passage in this way: “So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria.”
According to 2 Kings 15:19-20, Menahem (the sixteenth king of Israel) gave tribute to Pul when the Assyrian king came against Israel. The annals of Tiglath-Pileser specifically mention Menaham and the tribute he paid. Sennacherib, king of Assyria (704-681 B.C.), made Nineveh his capital and greatly fortified it with massive walls and moats. The palace of Sennacherib and the library of Ashurbanipal (containing about 22,000 tablets) were excavated in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jonah 3:3 says that “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.” Nineveh had a very large suburban area which had a perimeter of about 60 miles. This area includes the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, about 12 miles north of Nineveh.
The Taylor Prism records the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s 701 B.C. siege against Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18; 2 Chron. 32; Isa. 36-37). Second Kings 20:20 says that Hezekiah “made a pool and a tunnel and brought water into the city” of Jerusalem (see 2 Chron. 32:30). This 1,777 foot tunnel, cut out of solid rock, is a water conduit from the Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam inside the city walls. A Hebrew inscription, describing how the workmen working from opposite sides met in the middle of the tunnel, was discovered near the Siloam end. The Lachish Letters consist of 21 ostraca (inscribed potsherds), most written in 589 B.C., two years before Nebbuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Lachish during his final invasion of Judah. These letters confirm the statement in Jeremiah 34:6-7 that among the cities of Judah, only the strongholds of Lachish and Azekah had not yet fallen.
About 300 tablets dating from 597-570 B.C. were found in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of these tablets refered to the monthly ration which was being given to Jehoiachin and his five sons (cf. 2 Kings 25:27-30; Jer. 52:31-34). Many scholars believed that the mention of Belshazzar as king of Babylon in Daniel 5 was in error since no such king was known. However, three stelae were found in 1956 at Haran which say that Nabonidus had entrusted kingship to his son Belshazzar while he went on a campaign against the invading Persians. This coregency explains why Belshazzar proclaimed that Daniel “should be the third ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:29).
The Cyrus Cylinder announces the liberation of the city of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus the Great. This royal proclamation of restoring the gods to their native cities is consistent with the edict of Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4 which allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Palestine and rebuild their temple. The Elephantine Papyri are a set of letters written ca. 500-400 B.C. in Aramaic by a colony of Jews on the island of Elephantine in Egypt, almost 600 miles south of Cairo. They support the authenticity of the Aramaic letters recorded in Ezra 4, and shed light on the period described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The detailed prediction of the destruction of Tyre in Ezekiel 26:1-14 was fulfilled to the letter by the 13-year siege against the mainland city by Nebuchadnezzar in 585- 573 B.C., and later by the seven-month siege against the island city by Alexander in 333 B.C. Ezekiel predicted that the walls of Tyre would be destroyed, the dust would be scraped from it so that it would be like the top of a rock, the stones and timber would be cast into the water, the city would be used as a place for spreading nets, and it would never be rebuilt. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls, and Alexander scraped the rubble of the mainland city and threw it into the water in the process of building a land bridge to the island city.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) beginning in 1947 greatly aided our understanding of the transmission and reliability of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Over 500 manuscripts dating from 250 B.C. to A.D. 70 were recovered from the caves in the area of Qumran, and about 175 of these are manuscripts of the Old Testament. Before this time, the earliest Old Testament manuscripts were from the ninth century A.D. The DSS antedate the medieval Masoretic Text (named after Jewish scribes called the Masoretes) by 1,000 years, and comparisons reveal the remarkable accuracy of the Masoretic Text. The DSS also include a number of nonbiblical works which give details about the practices of the Qumran Sect which was probably an Essene community.
Both Old and New Testament literary criticism were originally developed before archaeology came into its own. The theories developed by the Tubingen School, the Religionsgeschichtliche (“history of religions”) School, redaction criticism, and form criticism discount or minimize the historicity of the New Testament. On the other hand, historians who examine the New Testament documents in the light of the external evidence provided by archaeology as well as classical texts are more inclined to affirm the historical accuracy of the New Testament. Luke 2:2 speaks of a census that “took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” Quirinius was governor of Syria in A.D. 6-7, and the Jewish historian Josephus writes that a census was taken under him in A.D. 6. The problem is that the records do not indicate that he was governor in the time before Herod’s death in 4 B.C. However, recently discovered inscriptions show that Quirinius governed the Roman Orient like a vice-emperor during most of the years between 12 B.C. to A.D. 16. The reference to Lysanias as the “tetrarch of Abilene” in Luke 3:1 was thought to be inaccurate because no such ruler was known in that time. Two Greek inscriptions from Abila near Damascus verified Luke’s statement because they refer to “Lysanias the tetrarch” who ruled in A.D. 14-29. The ancient sites of Capernaum and Chorazin near the Sea of Galilee have been positively identified. Evidence of the Capernaum synagogue of Jesus’ day has been found, and a recent excavation has uncovered the remains of a first-century fisherman’s home which may have belonged to Peter. Many parallels have been found between the non-biblical Qumran texts and the Gospel of John. These parallels (e.g., “sons of light”) show that the background of John is Palestinian, not Hellenistic as many had thought. Thus, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls supports a first-century date for this gospel. The site of Jacob’s Well where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman in John 4 has long been known. She said that “the well is deep” (John 4:11), and measurements show that it is about 100 feet in depth. According to John 5:1-9, the Pool of Bethesda had five porches and was sufficiently large to accomodate “a great multitude.” The location of this pool was unknown until 1888 when a flight of steps leading down to the twin pools was uncovered. The pools are quite large and originally had five porticoes. Excavations of the first-century level of Jericho reveal that this was a prosperous city in New Testament times. Its palatial civic center and villas show that as a “chief tax collector” in Jericho (Luke 19:2), Zacchaeus must have been quite wealthy. Luke’s geographical and political terminology in the book of Acts was once extensively criticized. However, monument inscriptions and papyri texts found in Asia Minor consistently vindicate Luke’s precision as a historian. Paul’s use of titles like procurator, praetor, Asiarch, proconsul, and politarch reveals an accurate firsthand knowledge of the people, places, and events he describes. Writing to the Romans from the city of Corinth, Paul mentioned “Erastus, the treasurer of the city” (Rom. 16:23; cf. Acts 19:22). An inscription was found near the theater in Corinth which mentions Erastus as the aedile, or commissioner of public works. It is likely that this was the same person. A cave was found in Bethany that was used for burials in New Testament times. Some of the names included Mary, Martha, and Eleazar (the Greek spelling of Lazarus). It is possible that these are the Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of John 11. First-century ossuaries (limestone boxes for the redeposit of the bones of the dead) from the Mount of Olives also list several of the names that appear in the New Testament.
The remains of the Antonia Fortress were uncovered by excavations in Jerusalem. Games carved out by Roman soldiers were found on the flagstones in the courtyard. Since “The Pavement” (Lithostroton; John 19:13) was the site of the trial of Jesus before Pilate, one of these may have been used in the mocking of Jesus. The use of the word “bishop” in the Pastoral Epistles was regarded by critics as an evidence that they were written in the second, not the first century. But it was discovered that the Qumran community had such an “overseer,” and this provides evidence for the office of bishop in the first century.
In Genesis 15:2, Abraham assumed that since he had no children, his chief servant, Eliezer of Damascus, would be his heir. The Nuzi Tablets, which reflect the Mesopotamian customs in the period of ca. 2000-1500 B.C., show that it was not uncommon for a childless couple to adopt a slave. He would care for his foster parents and become their heir. But if the parents later had a son, the real son would be the chief heir (cf. Gen. 15:4). The marital customs in the Nuzi Tablets illuminate Sarah’s decision to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as her substitute (Gen. 16:2-3; Rachel and Leah did the same in Gen. 30:3,9). The custom at that time was that a barren wife would provide a slave for her husband to bear children. A son born in this way was not to be expelled, and this clarifies Abraham’s reluctance to comply with Sarah’s demand in Genesis 21:9-11.
Genesis 19:1 states that “Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom.” Gates of Pelestinian cities often had stone benches that would be used by the people as they engaged in business and legal transactions (see Ruth 4:1-2). The city gate was also a place of public proclamation (2 Sam. 18:24,33). There is a precedent in the Nuzi Tablets for Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25:33-34). Tablet N204 records the sale of inheritance rights by a man named Tupktilla to his brother Kurpazah for three sheep. Nuzi tablet P56 illuminates the importance of the oral blessing in the ancient Near East. This tablet shows that in patriarchal times, an oral blessing was legally binding. Once it was bestowed, it could not be revoked. This explains why Isaac could not change his blessing after he discovered he had been deceived (see Gen. 27:33-41). Before she fled with her husband Jacob, Rachel stole her father Laban’s household idols (teraphim) and hid them in her camel’s saddle (Gen. 31:19,34). Nuzi tablet G51 reveals that the teraphim signified rule over the family and title to the family’s property. Thus, Laban was anxious to recover them for his own sons (Gen. 31:1,30). Archaeological finds provide a background for the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Egyptian papyrus documents show that the Canaanites were highly desirable as slaves in Egypt. Egyptian monuments refer to the overseer (merper) of large houses, a position which Joseph held. In addition, excavations at Tell el Amarna in central Egypt explain why Potiphar’s wife would speak to Joseph each day. In the floor plans of large houses, the storerooms in the back could only be reached by going through the inner chambers of the house. In Genesis 38:8, Judah told his son Onan to marry Tamar, his brother’s widow. The Mosaic Law provided for levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10; cf. Matt. 22:23-33), and this has a precedent in the Nuzi Tablets which record a father’s will that if his son dies, the widow should marry another of his sons. The bodies of Jacob and Joseph were mummified in Egypt (Gen. 50:2-3,26). Mummification was practiced in Egypt by 2500 B.C. and was generally reserved for royalty, high officials, and the wealthy. First the organs were removed (except for the heart and kidneys) and placed in stone canopic jars. Then the body was dehydrated from 40 to 70 days with natron, a form of sodium carbonate. Next, the chest and abdominal cavities were stuffed with resin-soaked linen, and the body was treated with ointments, wrapped in linen, and placed in a painted wooden coffin.
Formal education was a social privilege, and Moses “was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). In addition to reading and writing, he probably learned mathematics and music. Most education in Israel took place in the home as the parents taught their children spiritual and moral principles (Deut. 6:6-9; cf. Prov. 1:8-9; 4:1-13) as well as practical skills. When synagogue worship was developed after the Babylonian exile, male children attended synagogue schools where they learned the Bible and the Talmud (the Jewish traditions and commentaries on the Law). Jesus probably studied at the synagogue school in Nazareth. Saul of Tarsus had the privilege of studying under the great Pharisaical rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Houses in Palestine were often made of sun-dried mud bricks (“houses of clay,” Job 4:19) with roofs of thatch and clay. Because of this, grass could grow on the roof (“Let them be as the grass on the housetops,” Ps. 129:6). A hole could be made in the roof and later repaired, as in the case of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof (Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19). According to Deuteronomy 22:8, low walls were to be built on the rooftops to prevent people from falling off. Roofs were used for several purposes, including sleeping, storage, and prayer. Ruth 4:7 refers to the custom of removing a sandal and giving it to another as a way of confirming an agreement to redeem property. The Nuzi Tablets also speak of the transfer of shoes as a token denoting property transaction. Sheep were abundant in Palestine, and shepherding was a common occupation. In farming households, the youngest boy would often take care of the sheep (1 Sam. 16:11). The shepherd carried a rod to protect the sheep from wild animals and a staff to handle and guide the sheep (Ps. 23:4). He had to lead his flock to new pastures when the food supply was exhausted (1 Chron. 4:39), and he brought them to streams or quiet pools for water (Ps. 23:2). When these were unavailable, he would water them by drawing from a well (Gen. 29:7-10). Sometimes flocks would be mixed while being watered, but when it was time to go, they were easily separated by each shepherd’s call. They recognized their shepherd’s tone of voice and would not respond to the call of a stranger (see John 10:4-5). The shepherd knew each sheep and would name many or all of them according to their characteristics (John 10:3,14). He knew the state of his flock (Prov. 27:23) and could sense the absence of even one sheep. The shepherd found and restored any that strayed (see Ps. 119:176; Isa. 53:6), carrying them back to the fold on his shoulders (Luke 15:5). An Oriental shepherd did not drive his sheep but led them, often by going before them (Ps. 23:3; John 10:4). He would stay close to the mothers who were with young and carry small lambs that could not keep up with the rest of the flock (see Isa. 40:11). He anointed the heads of the sick and scratched sheep (Ps. 23:5), and watched over his flock by night (Luke 2:8), defending them against thieves (John 10:10) and wild animals. In biblical times these included not only wolves, hyenas, jackels, and panthers, but also lions and bears (cf. 1 Sam. 17:34-37). The custom in the East has always been for the parents to select a bride for their son. Because of this, love normally followed marriage (Gen. 24:67), though there were exceptions (Gen. 29:10-18; Judg. 14:2). Once the bride was chosen, a deputy (“the friend of the bridegroom,” John 3:29) would negotiate the dowry to be paid for the woman (Gen. 29:18; 1 Sam. 18:25). The woman’s ten silver coins in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9) was probably part of her marriage dowry. A bethrothal was a spoken covenant before witnesses, and normally a year would elapse between the bethrothal and the wedding. It was during this period between the bethrothal and the actual marriage that Mary was “found with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). For the wedding, the groom dressed like royalty (Isa. 61:10) and the bride elaborately adorned herself (Jer. 2:32; cf. Rev. 21:2). The bridegroom usually went to receive his bride at her parent’s house and brought her to his house in a joyful wedding procession, often with music and dancing (Jer. 7:34), in which the invited guests would carry torches or lamps (cf. the parable of the ten virgins in Matt. 25:1- 13). After the arrival at the bridegroom’s house, the couple were brought to a canopy where a benediction would be pronounced upon them. A “master of the feast” (John 2:8-9) would preside over the marriage feast, and the guests were required to wear wedding garments (Matt. 22:12). The bride was then brought to a prepared room and the husband was escorted to her by his friends. The festivities sometimes lasted a week (Judg. 14:17).
Women would carry clay pots on their shoulders (Gen. 24:15) or heads and draw from a common well or spring in the early morning or late afternoon. The Samaritan woman in John 4 went alone to draw water in the heat of the day because she was a social outcast. Since carrying a pitcher of water was almost always done by women, it would be easy to spot a man carrying water, as Jesus instructed His disciples to do (Mark 14:13).
It was customary for guests to be urged to accept an invitation to an Oriental feast (the guests in Luke 14:23 were compelled to come; cf. Acts 16:15). Those who were excluded from the brilliantly lit banquet room were thought to be cast into the “outer darkness” of the night (Matt. 8:12; cf. 25:30).
Bread has always been the principal food of the Orient, and because of this, the people have a reverence for this sustainer of life. When Jesus said “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), He was offering Himself as the source of spiritual sustenance. The custom was not to cut bread with a knife, but to break it with the hands. “Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body’” (Matt. 26:26).
Wine was made from grapes that were gathered in September and pressed by foot in winepresses that were cut out of rock (Isa. 5:2). The grapes were treaded on a shallow upper level and the juice flowed to a deeper lower level. The wine was then placed in jars or new skins for further fermentation. The treading of grapes was a joyous occasion (Jer. 48:33), but it is also used in Scripture to portray divine judgment (Isa. 63:2-6; Rev. 19:15). Jesus used wine to speak of His life’s blood which sealed the new covenant and redeemed His people (Matt. 26:27-29; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). When a guest entered a home, he and the host would bow and exchange a greeting of peace. They would also kiss one another on their right and left cheeks (Jesus told Simon the Pharisee, “You gave me no kiss,” Luke 7:45). Following this, a servant would bring water and wash the guest’s feet. Since the disciples would not assume this humbling role, Jesus became a servant to His disciples by washing their feet after the last supper (John 13:4-5; cf. Luke 7:44). It was also customary to anoint the guest with olive oil (see Luke 7:46; sometimes the oil was mixed with spices). In New Testament times, the Roman custom of reclining on three couches which formed three sides of a square (a triclinium) was often followed. With the weight of the upper body on the left arm, a guest would lean back upon the breast of another if he wanted to speak to him privately as John did with Jesus (see John 13:23-25; cf. Luke 16:22). The highest place of honor was on the right of the host, and the second highest was on his left (see Mark 10:35-37). Torn off pieces of bread served as a spoon for eating sauces out of a common bowl. The “sop” was a morsel of food which was dipped into the bowl and given by the host to a guest as a sign of friendship (see John 13:25-26).
(Most of the material in this section is adapted from a chapter in I’m Glad You Asked by Kenneth Boa and Larry Moody (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1982). Consult this book for answers to the twelve basic objections to Christianity.)
Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions and errors?
The Bible has been copied and translated so many times--hasn’t this process led to errors?
How can you be sure that the Bible is the same now as when it was written?
Didn’t the church arbitrarily decide which books should be included in the Bible and which books should be rejected?
So many people have different interpretations of the Bible--what makes you think that yours is correct?
How can you place your faith in a book that condones genocide and slavery?
Doesn’t the Bible make a number of claims that are scientifically inaccurate?
In most cases, those who reject the reliability of the Bible do so because of false impressions they have gained from sources other than the Bible. Most people’s knowledge about the Bible is derived almost completely from second-, third-, and fourth-hand sources. It is not surprising, then, that so many people think that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves,” or, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Many are also convinced that the Scriptures teach that the earth is flat or that it is the center of the universe. Another common misconception is that the books of the New Testament were written centuries after the events they describe or that our earliest New Testament manuscripts go back only to the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. Also, most people have somehow been given the impression that the English Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation (etc.) of the original, and that fresh errors were introduced in each stage of the process. College courses often undermine the authority of the Bible by falsely claiming that the Old Testament is merely a derivative of earlier Babylonian and Assyrian myths and law codes. People frequently say that the Bible is loaded with contradictions, but very few can think of any when asked. The few who can will usually mention the stock objections they were taught, like the two “contradictory” creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. It is a rare person who has personally examined the text to see if the alleged contradiction is really there.
In many cases, when someone says, “I don’t believe the Bible,” it is helpful to ask, “Do you understand the message of the Bible? Many will acknowledge that they do not, and those who think they do will almost invariably present a distorted picture. You can graciously point this out and say, “I think that you owe it to yourself to have a correct picture of the basic message of the Bible before you decide to accept or reject it.” This can open the door to a clear presentation of the Gospel, and the discussion can go from there. This approach is most appropriate when the objection to the Bible is vague or being used as a smokescreen. If a person has honest intellectual difficulties about the Bible, give direct answers whenever possible. The information in this section is designed to help you do this.
This can be demonstrated by combining three lines of evidence: the bibliographic test, the internal test, and the external test. The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second test deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third test looks to outside confirmation of biblical content.
This test examines the transmission of the text of the Old and New Testaments from the original autographs to the present day. The three aspects of this test are the quantity, quality, and time span of the manuscripts.
In the case of the Old Testament, there is a small number of Hebrew manuscripts, because the Jewish scribes ceremonially buried imperfect and worn manuscripts. Many ancient manuscripts were also lost or destroyed during Israel’s turbulent history. Also, the Old Testament text was standardized by the Masoretic Jews by the sixth century A.D., and all manuscripts that deviated from the Masoretic Text were evidently eliminated. But the existing Hebrew manuscripts are supplemented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (a third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Targums (ancient paraphrases of the Old Testament), as well as the Talmud (teachings and commentaries related to the Hebrew Scriptures).
The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, about 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and another 1,000 manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Coptic, etc.). In addition to this extraordinary number, there are tens of thousands of citations of New Testament passages by the early church fathers. In contrast, the typical number of existing manuscript copies for any of the works of the Greek and Latin authors, such as Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, or Tacitus, ranges from one to 20.
Because of the great reverence the Jewish scribes held toward the Scriptures, they exercised extreme care in making new copies of the Hebrew Bible. The entire scribal process was specified in meticulous detail to minimize the possibility of even the slightest error. The number of letters, words, and lines were counted, and the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament were determined. If a single mistake was discovered, the entire manuscript would be destroyed. As a result of this extreme care, the quality of the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible surpasses all other ancient manuscripts. The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provided a significant check on this, because these Hebrew scrolls antedate the earliest Masoretic Old Testament manuscripts by about 1,000 years. But in spite of this time span, the number of variant readings between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text is quite small, and most of these are variations in spelling and style. While the quality of the Old Testament manuscripts is excellent, that of the New Testament is very good--considerably better than the manuscript quality of other ancient documents. Because of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, there are many variant readings, but these variants are actually used by scholars to reconstruct the original readings by determining which variant best explains the others in any given passage. Some of these variant readings crept into the manuscripts because of visual errors in copying or because of auditory errors when a group of scribes copied manuscripts that were read aloud. Other errors resulted from faulty writing, memory, and judgment, and still others from well-meaning scribes who thought they were correcting the text. Nevertheless, only a small number of these differences affect the sense of the passages, and only a fraction of these have any real consequences. Furthermore, no variant readings are significant enough to call into question any of the doctrines of the New Testament. The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure, and the correct readings for the remaining 0.5 percent can often be ascertained with a fair degree of probability by the practice of textual criticism.
Apart from some fragments, the earliest Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament is dated at A.D. 895. This is due to the systematic destruction of worn manuscripts by the Masoretic scribes. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from 250 B.C. to A.D. 70 drastically reduced the time span from the writing of the Old Testament books to our earliest copies of them. The time span of the New Testament manuscripts is exceptional. The manuscripts written on papyrus came from the second and third centuries A.D. The John Rylands Fragment (P52) of the Gospel of John is dated at A.D. 117-38, only a few decades after the Gospel was written. The Bodmer Papyri are dated from A.D. 175- 225, and the Chester Beatty Papyri date from about A.D. 250. The time span for most of the New Testament is less than 200 years (and some books are within 100 years) from the date of authorship to the date of our earliest manuscripts. This can be sharply contrasted with the average gap of over 1,000 years between the composition and the earliest copy of the writings of other ancient authors.
To summarize the bibliographic test, the Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents. It is especially interesting to make specific comparisons between the New Testament and other writings:
ca. 850 B.C.
ca. 450 B.C.
ca. A.D. 900
not enough copies
ca. 440 B.C.
ca. A.D. 1100
not enough copies
ca. 420 B.C.
ca. A.D. 900
About 1,300 years
not enough copies
ca. 380 B.C.
ca. A.D. 900
About 1,300 years
ca. 350 B.C.
ca. A.D. 1100
About 1,400 years
ca. 60 B.C.
ca. A.D. 900
About 950 years
ca. 50 B.C.
ca. A.D. 1500
About 1,600 years
ca. 10 B.C.
ca. A.D. 100
ca. A.D. 1100
About 1,000 years
ca. A.D. 60
ca. A.D. 130
About 100 years
The second test of the reliability of the biblical documents asks, “What claims does the Bible make about itself?” This may appear to be circular reasoning. It sounds like we are using the testimony of the Bible to prove that the Bible is true. But we are really examining the truth claims of the various authors of the Bible and allowing them to speak for themselves. (Remember that the Bible is not one book but many books woven together.) This provides significant evidence that must not be ignored.
A number of biblical authors claim that their accounts are primary, not secondary. That is, much of the Bible was written by men who were eyewitnesses of the events they recorded. John wrote in his Gospel, “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe” (John 19:35; see 21:24). In his first epistle, John wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you” (1 John 1:1,3). Peter makes the same point abundantly clear: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16; also see Acts 2:22; 1 Pet. 5:1). The independent eyewitness accounts in the New Testament of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written by men who were intimately acquainted with Jesus Christ. Their gospels and epistles reveal their integrity and complete commitment to the truth, and they maintained their testimony even through persecution and martyrdom. All the evidence inside and outside the New Testament runs contrary to the claim made by form criticism that the early church distorted the life and teachings of Christ. Most of the New Testament was written between A.D. 47 and 70, and all of it was complete before the end of the first century. There simply was not enough time for myths about Christ to be created and propagated. And the multitudes of eyewitnesses who were alive when the New Testament books began to be circulated would have challenged blatant historical fabrications about the life of Christ. The Bible places great stress on accurate historical details, and this is especially obvious in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Luke’s two-part masterpiece (see his prologue in Luke 1:1-4).
Because the Scriptures continually refer to historical events, they are verifiable; their accuracy can be checked by external evidence. Notice, for example, the chronological details in the prologue to Jeremiah (1:1-3) and in Luke 3:1-2. Ezekiel 1:2 allows us to date Ezekiel’s first vision of God to the day (July 31, 592 B.C.). The historicity of Jesus Christ is well-established by early Roman, Greek, and Jewish sources, and these extrabiblical writings affirm the major details of the New Testament portrait of the Lord. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and James in his Antiquities of the Jews. In this work, Josephus gave us many background details about the Herods, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the high priests like Annas and Caiaphas, and the Roman emperors mentioned in the gospels and Acts. We find another early secular reference to Jesus in a letter written a little after A.D. 73 by an imprisoned Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion. This letter to his son compares the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Christ. Other first- and secondcentury writers who mention Christ include the Roman historians Cornelius Tacitus (Annals) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius, Lives of the Caesars), the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (Epistles), and the Greek satirist Lucian (On the Death of Peregrine). Jesus is also mentioned a number of times in the Jewish Talmud. The Old and New Testaments make abundant references to nations, kings, battles, cities, mountains, rivers, buildings, treaties, customs, economics, politics, dates, etc. Because the historical narratives of the Bible are so specific, many of its details are open to archaeological investigation. The section above on archaeology and the Bible shows that while archaeology does not prove the authority of the Bible, it has provided external confirmation of hundreds of biblical statements. Higher criticism in the nineteenth century made many damaging claims that would completely overthrow the integrity of the Bible, but the explosion of archaeological knowledge in the twentieth century reversed almost all of these claims. Noted archaeologists such as William F. Albright, Nelson Glueck, and G. Ernest Wright developed a great respect for the historical accuracy of the Scriptures as a result of their work.
The Old and New Testaments pass the bibliographic, internal, and external tests like no other ancient books. Most professional archaeologists and historians acknowledge the historicity of the Bible and yet many theologians still embrace prearchaeological critical theories about the Bible. The evidence strongly supports the accuracy of the Bible in relation to history and culture, but in many cases it has been overlooked or rejected because of philosophical presuppositions that run contrary to the Scriptures. This leads to a double standard: critics approach secular literature with one standard but wrongly use a different standard when they examine the Bible. Those who discard the Bible as historically untrustworthy must realize that the same standard would force them to eliminate almost all ancient literature.
We have already seen that Christ cannot be dismissed as a mythical creation of the early church. The evidence supports the historical reliability of the gospel accounts about Jesus. Because of this, a solid case can be built for the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection, in turn, authenticates Jesus’ divine claims about Himself. Because Jesus is God, His testimony concerning the Scriptures is true, and He bore witness to the complete authority of the Word of God. Thus, the historical reliability of the New Testament affirms the resurrection of Christ, and the resurrected Christ affirms the divine authority of the Scriptures.
The argument for the reliability of the biblical documents demonstrates that the Bible is trustworthy. The case is strengthened even more by the uniqueness of the Bible and the beneficial effects of the Bible.
The uniqueness of the Bible supports its claim to be the revealed Word of God. We saw at the beginning of this Companion that the Bible is unique in its production, preservation, proclamations, and product.
The Bible is unique in its production. It is a unity out of diversity, not just an anthology of stories, poetry, and letters. The Bible is a harmonious and continuous message from beginning to end, a self-consistent whole whose main theme is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The scarlet thread of redemption runs from Genesis to Revelation. But consider the incredible diversity which produced such a unity! (1) Diversity of authors. There were more than 40 authors who contributed to the Bible, including a king, a herdsman, a fisherman, and a tax collector. They cover the range from educated to uneducated, from rich to poor. The Bible was written in three languages on three continents under all types of conditions. (2) Time span. The Bible was written over a span of about 1,500 to 1,800 years. (3) Literary form. The Bible includes narrative history, poetry, biography, drama, exposition, letters, parables, prophecies, sermons, narrative stories, and wisdom literature. In spite of this diversity and the controversial topics addressed in the Bible, the books of the Bible can be interwoven into a composite whole. If ten people with similar backgrounds were selected today to write independently on a few controversial topics, the composite result would probably look like a crazy quilt of contradictory concepts.
The Bible is unique in its preservation. We have just seen how the quantity, quality, and time span of the biblical manuscripts set them apart from other ancient literature. The Scriptures have survived through time, persecution, and criticism. There have been numerous attempts to burn, ban, and systematically eliminate the Bible, but all have failed. Critics have often sounded its death knell, but the corpse never stays put. The Bible has been subjected to more abuse, perversion, destructive criticism, and pure hate than any other book. Yet it is an anvil that has worn out many hammers; it continues to stand the test of time while its critics are refuted and forgotten. No other book has enjoyed such popularity--the Bible has been copied and circulated far more extensively than any other book in human history. It has been translated into more languages than any other literature as well (portions now exist in over 1,700 languages).
The Bible is unique in its proclamations. Its prophetic character stands alone in its content, completeness, detail, and accuracy. More than one fourth of the Bible was prophetic at the time of writing. The Bible;s sweeping scope is also unparalleled as it boldly moves from eternity to eternity and touches the heights of heaven and the depths of hell. It is a progressive revelation which outlines God’s plan of the ages for all creatures, including men and angels. Its revelation of God as the triune, infinite, and personal God is unique, and so is its message about man (originally created perfect; the fall; man’s sinfulness) and salvation (faith in Christ, not human merit; directly confronts and solves the problem of sin; God Himself became a man and died to redeem sinners). The Bible’s strong historical emphasis also sets it apart from the scriptures of other religions.
The Bible is unique in its product. The message of the Bible has shaped the course of history, thought, and culture in a way unparalleled by any other book. Its influence on the philosophy, morality, law, politics, art, music, literature, education, and religion of Western civilization is beyond estimation. It has also had a phenomenal impact on the lives of untold millions of people through the centuries. Its redemptive message has consistently given help, joy, and meaning to everyone who has personally embraced it.
The German poet Goethe wrote, “Belief in the Bible, the fruit of deep meditation, has served me as the guide of my moral and literary life. I have found it a capital safely invested, and richly productive of interest.” The great philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed, “The existence of the Bible, as a book for the people, is the greatest benefit which the human race has ever experienced. Every attempt to belittle it is a crime against humanity.” And the English philosopher John Locke wrote, “It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter.”
Even if a person acknowledges the reliability of the Bible, he may still have some specific intellectual problems that must be cleared up before he can embrace the authority of the Bible. Most of these obstacles fit in the following seven categories: the problem of inspiration, science and the Bible, ethical problems in the Bible, apparent errors, canonicity, the miracles in the Bible, and interpretation. We will look at the last of these in the section on interpreting the Bible (section V).
A person may grant the reliability of the biblical documents but balk at the idea that they are divinely inspired. The Bible’s repeated claim of verbal inspiration by God does not by itself prove such inspiration any more than similar claims made by the Koran or the Book of Mormon prove the inspiration of those books. But if all other lines of evidence point consistently to the reliability of the Bible, the Bible’s selftestimony of divine inspiration must be taken seriously. Similarly, if Jesus Christ fulfilled hundreds of messianic prophecies and rose from the dead, His testimony concerning Himself and the Bible cannot be lightly dismissed.
Referring to “The law and the prophets” (Luke 16:16), Jesus made this unqualified statement: “And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17). He said that “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44), and that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35; also see Matt. 4:4; 5:17- 18; 15:4). Paul also affirmed that the Scriptures are “God-breathed” (inspired): “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16; also see 1 Cor. 2:13; Gal. 3:16). Peter referred to this divine-human nature of Scripture when he wrote, “for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21; also see 3:16).
No other book in the world contains the kind of specific prophecies found all throughout the pages of the Bible. There is no comparison, for example, between the Oracles of Nostradamus and the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus Christ. Other so-called prophecies are so vague and cryptic that they could be “fulfilled” in any number of ways. But the prophecies of the Old Testament are often so detailed that their fulfillments were obvious--so clear, in fact, that many critics have attempted to assign later dates to some of these prophets (e.g., Isaiah 40-66 and Daniel) to make the prophecies come after the events. The Old Testament prophets gave both short- and long-term prophecies, so that the undisputed fulfillment of the short-term predictions would authenticate the validity of the long-term predictions which could not be verified for many years. Thus, God designed fulfilled prophecy to be an open demonstration of the divine origin of the Scriptures.
Messianic prophecy is quite specific, yet it was all written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament was translated into Greek around 250 B.C. (the Septuagint), so it is obvious that the Hebrew Bible was written before this time. When these messianic prophecies are combined, the prophetic doorway becomes so narrow that only one person can fit through. Some 300 Old Testament predictions were literally fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ, and these messianic predictions make no sense apart from His life. A messianic impostor might have been able to engineer the fulfillment of a few of these prophecies, but the vast majority would be beyond his reach. Jesus’ sinless character, miraculous ministry, and resurrection could be matched by none other than the Messiah. Jesus knew the Scriptures thoroughly and frequently claimed that the whole Hebrew Bible (“the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” Luke 24:44) pointed ahead to Him. “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27; also see Matt. 5:17; 11:10; 21:42; 26:56; Luke 4:20-21; 22:37; John 5:39,46-47; 15:25). The New Testament writers likewise claim that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament messianic prophecies. “Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3; also see Acts 2:24-36; 3:18; 8:32-35; 10:43; 13:29; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; Heb. 1:8-9,13; 10:5-17; 1 Pet. 1:10-12; 2:6-8). The most explicit and powerful of all messianic prophecies is Isaiah 52:13-53:12, written seven centuries before the birth of Christ. This song of the Suffering Servant reveals that Messiah would suffer sinlessly (53:4-6,9), silently (53:7), and as a substitute to bear the sins of others (53:5-6,8,10-12). Messiah will be scourged, pierced, “cut off from the land of the living,” and placed in a rich man’s grave at His death. But after His death He will be “exalted and extolled” (52:13). This is a clear portrait of the rejection, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. (Jewish scholars since the twelfth century have attempted to identify the Servant of this passage with Israel, but the nation is distinguished from the Servant in 53:8, and Israel never suffered sinlessly nor silently as this Servant does.) The following list of Old Testament predictions and New Testament fulfillments regarding the life of Christ demonstrate how thoroughly His coming was foretold:
1. Born of a woman (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 4:4).
2. Born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25).
3. A descendant of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 22:18; Matt. 1:1; Gal. 3:16).
4. From the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10; Luke 3:23,33).
5. Of the house of David (2 Sam. 7:12; Jer. 23:5; Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:32).
6. Born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-7).
7. His way prepared by a forerunner (Isa. 40:3-5; Mal. 3:1; Matt. 3:1-3; Luke 3:3-6).
8. Anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:2; Matt. 3:16-17).
9. Preaching ministry (Isa. 61:1-3; Luke 4:17-21).
10. Speaking in parables (Ps. 78:2-4; Matt. 13:34-35).
11. Healing ministry (Isa. 35:5-6; Matt. 9:35).
12. A prophet (Deut. 18:18; John 6:14; Acts 3:20-22).
13. A priest (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:5-6).
14. Time of His appearance and death (Dan. 9:24-27: Luke 19:44).
15. Triumphal entry (Zech. 9:9; John 12:12-16).
16. Betrayal price (Zech. 11:12-13; Matt. 26:15; 27:7-10).
17. Abandoned by His disciples (Zech. 13:6-7; Matt. 26:31; Mark 14:50).
18. Silent before His accusers (Isa. 53:7; Matt. 27:12-14).
19. Beaten and spat upon (Isa. 50:6; Matt. 26:67).
20. Mocked (Ps. 22:7-8; Luke 23:35).
21. Hands and feet pierced (Ps. 22:16; John 19:16-18).
22. Crucified with transgressors (Isa. 53:12; Mark 15:27-28).
23. Lots cast for His garments (Ps. 22:18; John 19:23-24).
24. Cry from the cross (Ps 22:1; Matt. 27:46).
25. No bones broken (Ps. 34:20; John 19:31-36).
26. Pierced in His side (Zech. 12:10; John 19:34,37).
27. Buried with the rich (Isa. 53:9; Matt. 27:57-60).
28. Resurrection and exaltation (Ps. 16:10; Isa. 52:13; 53:10-12; Acts 2:25-32).
29. Ascension into heaven (Ps. 68:18; Acts 1:9; Eph. 4:8).
30. Seated at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:3).
Nonmessianic or general prophecy also supports the supernatural origin of the Scriptures. In many cases these prophecies are so graphic and accurate that higher criticism has assigned dates to some books and portions of books that are later than those claimed by the books themselves, because they assume that such prophecy is not possible. The accumulating evidence is generally in favor of the earlier dates, but even if we grant the later dates, many powerful examples of prediction and fulfillment in Old Testament prophecy remain.
Ezekiel’s prediction of the destruction of Tyre (Ezek. 26) claims to have been given in the sixth century B.C., but higher critics date it in the fifth century B.C. According to this prophecy, Nebuchadnezzar would besiege and destroy the city (26:7-11), many nations would come against it (26:3), the ruins would be scraped from the site and thrown into the sea, leaving a bare rock (26:4,12,19), the site would become a place for fishermen to spread their nets (26:5,14), and the city would never be built again (26:13-14). These specific predictions have been fulfilled in surprising detail. The ancient city of Tyre was a prominent Phoenician seaport that consisted of two parts, one on the mainland at the coast, and the other on an island about a half mile off the coast. Nebuchadnezzar besieged the mainland city for 13 years (585-573 B.C.) and finally destroyed it, but the island city remained intact. This remaining portion continued until Alexander the Great overthrew it in 333 B.C. by building a causeway from the coast to the island. To build this causeway, he literally scraped the ruins and debris from the old mainland site (26:4) and threw them “in the midst of the water” (26:12). This left the old site “like the top of a rock” (26:4). “Many nations” (26:3) came against the restored island city, including the Seleucids, the Ptolemies, the Romans, the Moslems, and the Crusaders. But the mainland city was never rebuilt (26:14), and today it remains a bare rock upon which fishermen spread their nets to dry (26:5,14).
Other remarkable examples of the accuracy of Old Testament prophecies include the details about the overthrow of Nineveh (Nahum 1-3), Babylon (Isa. 13-14; Jer. 51), Ammon and Moab (Jer. 48-49; Ezek. 25), Philistia (Jer. 47; Zeph. 2), Edom (Isa. 34; Jer. 49; Ezek. 25; 35), Memphis and Thebes (Ezek. 30), and the desolation and restoration of Palestine (Lev. 26; Ezek. 36).
The biblical claims for its divine inspiration, combined with the forceful evidence of fulfilled messianic and general prophecy, make a strong case for the inspiration of Scripture, especially when these lines of evidence are built upon the case for the historical reliability of the biblical documents developed earlier in this section.
The most frequently raised scientific issue is the question of evolution. Everyone who believes the Bible accepts the fact that God is the Creator of the universe. But while evangelicals agree on the who, they do not all agree on the how of creation. Many believe that this is a young earth and that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days. Others believe that these days are figurative, and that God directly intervened at various points in the long evolutionary process. The question here is not who is right, but how to deal with the issue of evolution when the non-Christian raises it as an objection to the existence of God or the reliability of the Genesis creation account. The most basic issue is nontheistic evolution versus creation by God, not the age of the earth.
The nontheistic evolutionary model assumes that nonliving systems generated life by means of time plus chance, and that microevolution (small changes) leads to macroevolution (large changes, as in the microbe-to-man theory). The philosophical problem with this model is that it makes the effects (complexity, life, intelligence, personality) greater than the causes (disorder, nonlife, random interactions and mutations, and impersonal events).
There are also scientific problems with nontheistic evolution. It offers no workable mechanism that will account for the first living cell, let alone the complexity of the human brain.
The chemical production of a first living cell would have to follow this sequence: (1) Random atoms must be formed into amino acids. (2) These amino acids must link together to form chains (polypeptides). (3) These chains must become long (hundreds of amino acids) and they must form in an ordered sequence, since there are 20 kinds of amino acids. This will produce a simple protein molecule. (4) More complex proteins must be produced. (5) Very long and highly ordered molecular chains known as DNA must be formed and maintained. (6) An enormously complex chemical factory must be produced, complete with special protein formations, enzymes, DNA, RNA, ribosomes, a cell wall, etc. This single cell must be able to reproduce itself and carry on all the functions of life. Without a rational ordering agent, every step but the first would require nothing short of a statistical miracle, even under the most ideal circumstances. Many people argue that, given enough time, even the most improbable events become probable. This sounds reasonable only until specific numbers are used. Consider George Bernard Shaw’s argument that if a million monkeys constantly typed on a million typewriters for a long enough time, one of them would eventually pound out a Shakespearean play. Assume a million monkeys typing 24 hours a day at 100 words a minute on typewriters with 40 keys. If each word of the play contained four letters, the first word would be typed by one of the monkeys in about 12 seconds. However, it would require about five days to get the first two words (eight letters) on one of the typewriters. How long would it take to get the first four words? About 100 billion years! No one could imagine the amount of time which would be required to produce the first scene.
Beginning with the first step, many evolutionists assume a primordial earthly atmosphere with no oxygen so that amino acids could be formed. However, the very atmosphere that could produce them would immediately lead to their destruction (due to ultraviolet light penetrating this oxygen-free atmosphere) unless they were protected. Unfounded assumptions must be multiplied to overcome this problem.
On the next level, let us assume an ideal environment with a primordial soup full of amino acids and the proper catalysts, with just the right temperature and moisture. Some estimate that under these favorable conditions the chances of getting dipeptides (two amino acids bonded) would be about one in 100. But the chances of tripeptide formation would be about one in 10,000. To get a polypeptide of only ten amino acids, the probability would be one chance in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (100 quintillion). Yet the proteins in the simplest living things have chains of at least 400 amino acids on the average.
To make matters worse, all proteins are built of amino acids that are exclusively “left-handed” in their molecular orientation. Left-handed and right handed amino acids are mirror images of each other, and their chances of formation are about the same. Although both kinds can link with each other, the first living systems must have been built with left-handed components only. Some scientists have evoked natural selection here, but this only applies to systems that can already reproduce themselves. Without an intelligent ordering agent, we have only chance to explain this amazing phenomenon. For a chain of 400 left-handed amino acids, the odds would be roughly equivalent to tossing an ordinary coin and coming up with tails 400 times in a row. The chances for that would be approximately one in 10120 (a 1 followed by 120 zeroes). All this for one protein molecule, and hundreds of similar molecules would be needed in the first living system.
None of this accounts for the fact that the 20 kinds of amino acids operate like letters in an alphabet, and they must link in a meaningful sequence to form a usable protein. A random sequence of amino acids would be utterly useless. DNA is far more complex than any of this, and it too is built out of a highly organized alphabet. The letters are molecules called nucleotides. A cell contains a chain of about three billion pairs of these nucleotides (each gene has about 1,200 nucleotide pairs). The order of these nucleotides or bases is crucial because every triplet of bases along this immense chain is a word. Each word stands for one of the 20 kinds of amino acids. Using these words the DNA can literally create any kind of protein that the cell needs.
The amount of time required to synthesize even one gene (a paragraph of these words) has been calculated by some scientists using absurdly generous assumptions. Using a variation on a well-known illustration, suppose a bird came once every billion years and removed only one atom from a stone the size of the solar system. The amount of time required for the stone to be worn to nothing would be negligible compared to the time needed to create a useful gene by chance, even accounting for chemical affinities and an ideal environment. Shaw’s monkeys would long since have pounded out the words of Shakespeare!
But none of this can compare to the far greater complexity of a living cell. Even the simplest living system would require elaborately coded information, growth, reproduction, stability, adaptability, environmental response, and metabolism. Yet evolutionists demand spontaneous generation of life through chemical interaction because they think the only other option would be a miracle. In reality, a miracle cannot be avoided. The only question is whether life appeared out of the primordial soup or by the living God.
In addition, none of the above considers the fact that every chemical reaction along the way from amino acids to life is reversible. This means that whenever a higher point of complexity is reached, it is unstable compared to its environment and may break down into its components. A polypeptide bond of four amino acids can easily break down into four separate amino acids.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that all natural processes cause a net increase in entropy (disorder) and a net loss of useful energy. Any system left to itself will decay and degenerate. Free energy from the sun can cause slight increases in complexity, but the breakdown rate soon matches the buildup rate. The only way to build structures as complex as protein is to have an already existing machine that can translate raw energy into a more highly organized form. Solar energy may be plentiful, but it is useless for building complex systems unless such systems already exist. Life comes only from life, complexity only from complexity. Faith in an original spontaneous generation of life goes against all experience and evidence. It has been said that “teleology is a lady without whom no biologist can exist; yet he is ashamed to be seen with her in public.” Design requires a designer, and this is precisely what is lacking in nontheistic evolution. Of course, the subject of evolution entails other matters such as mutations and natural selection, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, and fossil men. These are not trivial matters, but the most basic issue is that the impersonal mechanism of evolution will not by itself produce life or personality. Whether or not God superintended any kind of evolutionary process is an entirely different issue, and those who accept the Genesis creation account are divided on this matter. Scientists who acknowledge the authority of Scripture do not have a uniform view of the age of the earth, and they interpret the fossil evidence and the geological strata in different ways. On the other hand, the speculations of some nontheistic evolutionists sometimes stretch beyond the limits of the scientific method as they conceive scenarios that are clearly contrary to the biblical world view. Forgetting the tentative nature of science, they make confident assertions about the genesis of life and man. But even if a theory demonstrates how something might have happened, this is a far cry from proving that it really did happen this way.
We must also remember that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but when it does touch on scientific matters, it has proven to be trustworthy. In the past, two problems have contributed to misunderstanding about the scientific validity of the Bible. The first is the erroneous scientific conclusions drawn from the Bible by the church. The most notable error is the teaching that the sun and planets revolve around the earth. Some writers delight in referring to the trial of Galileo for his “heretical” notion that the sun may be the center of the solar system, but the Bible cannot be blamed for this blunder. The second cause of misunderstanding is that the Bible uses phenomenological language. That is, it describes nature as it appears to the eye. Thus, it speaks of sunrises and sunsets (“Its rising is from one end of heaven, and its circuit to the other end; and there is nothing hidden from its heat,” Ps. 19:6). But this does not teach that the sun rotates about the earth any more than today’s scientist means this when he uses the term “sunrise” and “sunset.” Others say that the Bible is in error because it says that pi is equal to 3 instead of 3.14. They base this on 1 Kings 7:23 where a laver ten cubits in diameter is given a circumference of 30 cubits. Comparing 7:23 with 7:26, however, it appears that the circumference was measured by using the inside diameter. The biblical phrase “the four corners of the earth” has been misunderstood to mean that the earth is flat with four literal corners. But Scripture uses this phrase figuratively, referring to all directions (Isa. 11:12; Ezek. 7:2; Rev. 7:1; 20:8).
When the Bible makes positive statements about the workings of nature, it is quite accurate, often running contrary to the erroneous concepts that were held in the time it was written. Job 36:27-29 gives an excellent description of the hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. The statement about the earth in Job 26:7 was also far ahead of its time: “He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.” Other biblical statements about astronomy, biology, and medicine (e.g., the quarantine and sanitary laws of Leviticus) are equally remarkable.
Two of the major ethical difficulties people have with the Bible are genocide and slavery. The Bible presents the greatest set of ethical standards the world has ever known, focusing on love for God and one’s neighbor. This makes God’s genocidal command to utterly destroy the inhabitants of Canaan in Deuteronomy 20:10-18 (cf. Josh. 6:21) especially perplexing. There is no simple solution to this problem, but it can be substantially reduced by looking at it from several biblical perspectives: (1) It is easy to become so earthbound in our view of life that we forget that the author and giver of life has every right to take it away. (2) The sixth commandment is best translated “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). This did not prohibit the taking of human life in fulfillment of the divine command for social justice in Israel (capital punishment) or for national defense. (3) The command to annihilate another nation (the Canaanites) was completely unique in Israel’s history. (4) Israel at this time was a theocracy, and there is no parallel for this in world history. (5) As a redeemed nation, the children of Israel were to be distinct from all other nations. The idolatry and immorality of the Canaanites would have defiled them if Israel coexisted with them (Deut. 20:18). (6) God used the Israelites as His rod of judgment upon the Canaanites because of their gross immorality and wickedness. Archaeological discoveries confirm that Canaan at this time was overrun with religious prostitution, infant sacrifice, bestiality, and other abominations. Thus, the seeming cruel removal of the unrepentant Canaanites was not unlike the removal of a cancerous tumor.
Concerning the problem of slavery, here are three observations: (1) Slavery as we now understand it is quite different from the kind of slavery permitted in the Bible. Slaves were to be treated with human dignity and respect (Job 31:13-15), and if their masters violated their basic rights or abused them, they were to be set free (Exod. 21:26-27). If a slave ran away from his master, he was not to be mistreated or even returned (Deut. 23:15-16). Slaves were also allowed to participate in Israel’s worship. (2) The institution of this system of slavery was a cultural phenomenon, designed to make the perpetuation of the patriarchal family unit economically feasible. This is foreign to our own culture, but it would be wrong to absolutize our own cultural values. (3) Although the New Testament also allowed for slavery, the epistles make it clear that all believers have an equal standing before the Father (Gal. 3:28). The reality of Christ was to transform every human relationship, and Christian principles cried out against the abuses of slavery. Some people are troubled about the wrath of God and blood sacrifices. God is a God of love and mercy, but He is also a holy and righteous God. These divine attributes are found from Genesis to Revelation, and they are complementary, not contradictory. His love is a holy love, and His wrath is never capricious but always directed against sin and its dehumanizing results. The values of our society have become so diluted and distorted that the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin have become foreign concepts to many. Concerning blood sacrifices, the New Testament makes it clear that they all pointed ahead to Christ, the Lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of the world. His crucifixion provided the greatest demonstration of both the love and the wrath of God that will ever be known.
Almost all of the so-called contradictions in the Bible are due to differences in the perspective of the biblical writers when there is more than one account of a particular event. Close examination consistently reveals that the accounts supplement one another and that they can be harmonized. We see this in the alleged discrepancy in the gospels concerning the number of angels at Jesus’ tomb. Matthew and Mark report that one was there, but Luke and John speak of two. But if two angels were there, certainly one was there, and the one mentioned by Matthew and Mark was evidently more prominent. This is an example of selective reporting (all reporting is selective), and the same thing happens in other places (e.g., Mark and Luke mention only one demoniac who met Jesus near Gadara, but Matthew mentions two).
Another favorite example of a biblical contradiction relates to Genesis 1 and 2. Some claim these are two contradictory creation accounts, but they can be harmonized when we notice two things: (1) Genesis 1 is a general survey of the six days of creation, and Genesis 2 is a more detailed account of the sixth day of creation. (2) The name Elohim is used consistently in Genesis 1, because it emphasizes God’s work as Creator, while the name Yahweh is used throughout Genesis 2 to underline the covenant relationship He establishes with man. There are three basic causes for apparent errors in the Bible: sources, text, and interpretation.
(1) The biblical and extrabiblical sources are incomplete, and this can lead to the appearance of error. The section above on archaeology and the Bible illustrates how the Bible appeared to be in error regarding such things as the Hittite empire, Belshazzar as king of Babylon, and the Philistines in the patriarchal period. Until these biblical statements were confirmed by archaeological discoveries, it appeared that the Bible was in error. The problems were caused by incomplete sources, not biblical deficiency.
(2) Errors have crept into the biblical text through scribal mistakes and modernization. For example, 1 Kings 4:26 states that “Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots,” but 2 Chronicles 9:25 says that “Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots.” The exaggerated figure in 1 Kings is a common type of scribal error due to similarity in numerical notation (also compare 2 Sam. 10:18 with 1 Chron. 19:18).
(3) Faulty interpretation of the biblical text and extrabiblical data can also cause the appearance of error. The King James Version of 2 Kings 23:29, for example wrongly interpreted the Hebrew text to mean that Pharaoh Neco of Egypt “went up against” the king of Assyria. The text simply says “went up to,” and this agrees with the Assyrian records which say that he went up to aid the Assyrians against the Babylonians. (Keep in mind that our English Bibles are direct translations from the original languages. A comparison of several translations often helps one gain a clearer understanding of the text.)
It would be wrong to say that all biblical discrepancies have been resolved, for a small number of problems still remain. But the increasing historical and archaeological evidence has consistently been in favor of the Scriptures, and these problems should continue to diminish.
How can you be sure that the people who decided which books should be included in the Bible were right? Couldn’t the church councils have been mistaken? This objection reflects a misunderstanding about the nature of canonicity. The word canon means rule or standard, and it came to be used of the collection of books that conform to the standard of divine inspiration. Inspiration determines canonicity; the early church simply recognized these inspired books and rejected those books which did not bear the mark of inspiration. Thus, the church discovered the canonical books but did not determine them.
The canonical books of the Old Testament were divided into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (cf. Luke 24:44), and these had been recognized long before the time of Christ. Some books like Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were disputed for certain reasons by a few rabbis, but the rabbinic council at Jamnia in A.D. 90 confirmed these long-recognized books. Some confusion was caused when, at some point, the Apocryphal books were added to the Septuagint, but these were not regarded as canonical by the Jews or the early Christian church. Jewish writers like Philo and Josephus never quoted from them, and neither did Jesus or any of the New Testament writers. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1546 (during the Counter-Reformation) that the Roman Catholic Church gave full canonical status to the Apocrypha.
The Apocryphal books were written more than 200 years after the time of Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet. Unlike the books of the Old Testament, they do not claim to have the prophetic stamp, and they do not manifest the authority and power of God. They are marred by doctrinal errors, subbiblical morality, and historical inaccuracies, and they were not originally received by the people of God. The New Testament canonical books were progressively circulated and collected, and these 27 books were given official recognition by the councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397). All of these books passed the test of apostolic origin (e.g., Mark was an associate of Peter and Luke was an associate of Paul), apostolic date (first century), and apostolic doctrine.
This relates to the problem of science and the Bible because many object to the miracles of the Bible on scientific grounds. One objection is that miracles violate or contradict natural laws. However, it would be more accurate to say that since miracles are empowered by something higher than nature, they supersede the ordinary processes or laws of nature. Just as an airplane flies because the principle of aerodynamics overcomes the law of gravity, so a higher (supernatural) principle overcomes a lower (natural) principle for the duration of the miracle. Another objection is that miracles would destroy the regularity of nature. The scientific method is built upon the assumption that we live in an orderly universe. But if divine interventions can take place at any time, anything can happen, and order is replaced by confusion. This objection is based on a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching on miracles. The Bible affirms that the universe is orderly because it has been created and sustained by an intelligent Designer. God has instituted what we call the laws of nature, but He is not bound by them. He sometimes chooses to supersede them in order to reveal something about Himself to man. An examination of the Bible, however, shows that these sovereign interventions or miracles are unusual, not commonplace events. In fact, a miracle by its very nature must be a unique event that stands out against a background of ordinary and regular occurrences. Thus, it is just as devastating to the concept of miracles to believe that we are surrounded by them as to say that there are no such things. Because miracles are accomplished by a supernatural agency, there is no natural explanation for how they happen. But our inability to explain them certainly does not mean, therefore, that they cannot take place. The real issue is whether God exists. If so, miracles are possible. Granted the existence of God, the issue is not scientific or philosophical (can miracles happen?), but historical (have miracles happened?). The best historical evidence for miracles is the work of Jesus Christ, especially the miracle of His resurrection from the dead. All the attempts to find naturalistic explanations for the historical facts related to the resurrection have failed. The direct evidence concerning the tomb and the appearances, combined with the circumstantial evidence like the changed lives of the disciples, make a strong case for the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Scriptures do not give us details about how God caused the ten plagues to ravage Egypt, nor do they tell us how Jesus turned the water into wine or how He raised the dead. But it is clear that a supernatural agency was involved, and if God created the universe, He is certainly capable of accomplishing these things in the enactment of His redemptive purpose. Thus God could easily appoint a sea creature and arrange to have it near the ship at the time Jonah was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea. There is no basis or need to allegorize the account of Jonah. Certain whales and sharks are capable of swallowing a man whole, and a few people have actually had such an experience and lived to tell about it. (James Bartley, for example, was removed alive from the gullet of a sperm whale in 1891 a day and a half after being swallowed. The whale had overturned Bartley’s harpooning boat and his shipmates presumed he had drowned.) Whether God used an existing creature or created a new one for the purpose of delivering His prophet Jonah is irrelevant, for God has the power to do both.
The Bible, as a unity in diversity, expresses its unique message in a rich variety of literary forms. The literature of the Bible is an aesthetically beautiful interpretation of human experience from a divine perspective. As we read, interpret, and seek to apply the truths of Scripture, we must be careful not to overlook this artistic dimension, or we will miss an important part of enjoying the Bible. In this section, we will take a brief look at the literary forms found in the pages of Scripture, including figurative language, narrative history, poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic literature, gospel, oratory, and epistle.
Figurative Language The Bible abounds in figurative expressions. The wonderful imagery of Scripture is derived from a wealth of human experience, the manners and customs of the ancient Near East, family and business life, and the whole sphere of nature. While literal meaning refers to the normal or customary usage of a word or expression, figurative meaning refers to a concept which is represented in terms of another. The following list is not complete, but it outlines the major figures of speech used in the Bible.
A simile involves an explicit comparison of two unlike things using the words “as” or “like.”
“So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city” (Isa. 1:8).
“All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6).
“For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:2).
“For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27).
“Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). Also see Isaiah 29:8; 55:10-11; Jeremiah 23:29; Matthew 23:37; 1 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:2.
A metaphor involves a direct or implied comparison of two unlike things.
“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (2 Sam. 22:3).
“We are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Ps. 100:3).
“And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
The seven “I am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John are all metaphors.
“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).
“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9)
“I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
“I am the the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
“I am the true vine, and My father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1).
Also see Psalm 23:1; Jeremiah 2:13; Luke 8:21; Revelation 1:20.
In metonomy, the name of one object or concept is used for another because of an association or similarity between the two.
“They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). This is a metonomy, because “Moses and the prophets” stands for the writings of Moses and the prophets.
“There is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom. 3:30). In this metonomy, “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” is another way of saying “Jew” and Gentile.”
“Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5- 6). It was not the city of Jerusalem that moved, but the people who lived in it.
Also see Genesis 42:38; Proverbs 23:26; Matthew 23:22; Luke 1:46; Ephesians 5:16.
In a synecdoche, a part is used for a whole, or a whole is used for a part.
“All flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Gen. 6:12). Flesh is used for the whole person.
“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry’” (Luke 12:19). Soul is used for the whole person.
“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). “World” is used for the people in the world. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16).
“All Scripture” is used for every part of Scripture.
Also see Psalm 145:21; Isaiah 58:5; John 12:19; 1 Peter 1:9.
Personification is a figure of speech which takes a human characteristic and applies it to an object, quality, or idea.
“Destruction and Death say, ‘We have heard a report about it with our ears’” (Job 28:22).
“Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice?” (Prov. 8:2).
“The field is wasted, the land mourns” (Joel 1:10).
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things” (Matt. 6:34).
Also see Leviticus 18:25,28; Matthew 6:3; Romans 10:6; 1 Corinthians 12:15-16.
Anthropomorphism is a figure of speech which takes a human characteristic and applies it to God.
“Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exod. 33:23).
“He who touches you touches the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:8).
“Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications” (Ps. 130:2).
“No one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:29).
Also see Exodus 15:8; Psalm 91:4; Isaiah 40:10-11; John 1:18.
Apostrophe is a figure of speech in which an exclamation is addressed to an object as if it were a person.
“Then he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, ‘O altar, altar!’” (1 Kings 13:2).
“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!” (Isa. 1:2).
“Open your doors, O Lebanon, that fire may devour your cedars. Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen” (Zech. 11:2).
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” (Matt. 23:37).
Also see 2 Samuel 1:21; Psalm 148:3-4; Ezekiel 36:1,4,8; 1 Corinthians 15:55.
Irony is an expression that denotes the opposite of what is meant by the words themselves.
“And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).
“No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you!” (Job 12:2).
“Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress” (Judg. 10:14).
“Come to Bethel and transgress, at Gilgal multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days” (Amos 4:4-5).
“‘Throw it to the potter’--that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter” (Zech. 11:13).
“For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise!” (2 Cor. 11:19).
Also see Deuteronomy 32:37; Job 38:4-5; Isaiah 57:13; John 19:14; 2 Corinthians 11:19; 12:13.
In hyperbole, the writer or speaker exaggerates to create a strong effect.
“Every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss” (Judg. 20:16).
“I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears” (Ps. 6:6).
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck out of your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4).
“And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Also see Numbers 13:33; Deuteronomy 1:28; Psalm 107:26; Matthew 5:29-30.
A euphemistic figure substitutes an inoffensive or agreeable expression for one that may offend or suggest something distasteful.
“You shall go to your fathers in peace” (Gen. 15:15). A euphemism for death.
“Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul would soon have settled in silence” (Ps. 94:17). A euphemism for death and burial.
“Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (John 11:11). A euphemism for death and resurrection.
“From which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1:25). A euphemism for hell.
Also see Leviticus 18:6; 2 Kings 22:20; Ecclesiastes 12:2-7; John 2:25.
Litotes involves belittling or the use of a negative statement to affirm a truth.
“After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A flea?” (1 Sam. 24:14).
Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the balance; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing” (Isa. 40:15).
“And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted” (Acts 20:12).
“I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” (Acts 21:39).
Also see Genesis 18:27; Psalm 22:6; Acts 27:14; Romans 1:13.
Pleonasm is a figure that uses an excessive number of words for the sake of emphasis.
“Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Gen. 40:23). The redundant “but forgot him” adds force to the statement.
“Then Jephthah fled from his brothers” (Judg. 11:3). The literal expression is “from the face of his brothers.”
“And it came to pass in those days” (Mark 1:9). The emphatic “and it came to pass” is common in the Old and New Testaments.
“Knowing that God had sworn with an oath” (Acts 2:30). The redundant “with an oath” adds emphasis.
Also see Genesis 38:1,24,28; 42:2; Exodus 12:20; 2 Kings 20:1; 1 John 1:8.
Emphasis is gained by a number of techniques that repeat the same word, phrase, or sentence.
“Moses, Moses!” (Exod. 3:4).
“The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You” (Ps. 77:16).
“For His mercy endures forever” is repeated in each verse of Psalm 136.
“Blessed” is repeated through the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-11.
“Eloi, Eloi” (Mark 15:34).
“Nor” is repeated several times in Romans 8:38-39.
“To another” is repeated in a list of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10).
Also see Deuteronomy 28:3-6; Psalm 22:1; 96:13; 1 Corinthians 13:7.
This figure lists a series of actions or qualities and repeats each one.
“What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4; cf. 1:3).
“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5).
“And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:3-5).
“But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Pet. 1:5-7).
Also see Hosea 2:21-22; Romans 8:29-30; 10:14-15; James 1:14-15.
Ellipsis refers to the omission of one or more words that must be supplied by the reader to complete the thought.
“And Saul had a concubine, whose name [was] Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah. So [Ishbosheth] said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’” (2 Sam. 3:7). The words “was” and “Ishbosheth” are italicized in the translation because they are not in the Hebrew text. They were added to complete the sense of the passage.
“Uzzah put out [his hand] to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled” (2 Sam. 6:6). “His hand” must be supplied to complete the thought.
“He will not always strive [with us], nor will He keep [His anger] forever” (Ps. 103:9).
“For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be [in the likeness] of [His] resurrection” (Rom. 6:5).
Also see 1 Chronicles 16:7; Psalm 137:5; Ezekiel 47:13; Hebrews 7:8.
In this figure, a word modifies two or more words but strictly refers to only one of them. One or more words must be supplied to complete the thought.
“I have surely visited you and [seen] what is done to you in Egypt” (Exod. 3:16). “Forbidding to marry, [and commanding] to abstain from foods” (1 Tim. 4:3).
“Forbidding” only applies to marriage, and “commanding” must be supplied.
Also see Exodus 20:18; Deuteronomy 4:12; 2 Kings 11:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34.
This is a rhetorical figure that breaks off a thought in mid-sentence.
“‘And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’--therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22-23).
“Yet now, if You will forgive their sin--but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exod. 32:32).
“But if we say, ‘From men’--they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed” (Mark 11:32).
“And if it bears fruit, [well.] But if not, after that you can cut it down” (Luke 13:9).
Also see Psalm 6:3; Luke 15:21 (cf. 15:19); John 6:62; Acts 23:9.
Exercise: Try to identify the figures of speech found in the following verses (some verses use more than one): Genesis 18:27; Exodus 15:8; Leviticus 18:25,28; 2 Kings 22:20; Psalm 23:1; 107:26; 145:21; Ezekiel 36:1,4,8; Matthew 23:37; Luke 1:46; Romans 8:29-30; 1 Corinthians 13:7; 13:11; 2 Corinthians 11:19.
Parables are extended figures of comparison that often use short stories to teach a truth or answer a question. While the story in a parable is not historical, it is true to life, not a fairy tale. As a form of oral literature, the parable exploits realistic situations but makes effective use of the imagination. Jesus frequently composed parables in His teaching ministry (see Mark 4:34) and used them in response to specific situations and challenges. His parables are drawn from the spheres of domestic and family life as well as business and political affairs. He used imagery that was familiar to His hearers to guide them to the unfamiliar. Some of the parables were designed to reveal mysteries to those on the inside and to conceal the truth to those on the outside who would not hear (Matt. 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12). This was especially true of the parables that related to the kingdom of God. However, other parables like the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25- 37) and the parable of the landowner (Matt. 21:33-46) could be grasped by unbelievers.
Parables have one central point; the details are not meant to call attention to themselves but to reinforce this single theme. In most parables, assigning allegorical meanings to each of the details can lead to confusion and obscure the point. A good joke produces the spontaneous response of laughter. If the joke must be explained, it loses its impact. In a similar way, a parable must be “caught” by the hearer. The story parables (e.g., the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the workers in the vineyard, the rich man and Lazarus, the wise and foolish virgins) are all designed to elicit a response from the hearers. The moment it is grasped, the point of the parable penetrates like the point of an arrow. Nathan’s parable of the rich man who slaughtered the poor man’s lamb sank into David like a shaft when Nathan said, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:1-7). As soon as David caught the parable, he was caught by it.
The parables in the gospels range from similitudes to true parables to allegories. The parable of the leaven (Matt. 13:33-35) is a similitude, because it is an illustration from everyday life. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is a true parable, because it is a story that has a beginning and an end. The parable of the vineyard owner (Mark 12:1-11) is closer to an allegory, because it has a number of details that have corresponding conceptual meaning.
While a parable is an extended simile, an allegory is an extended metaphor. The allegory of the vine and the branches in John 15, for example, develops the metaphors of Christ as the true vine (vss. 1,5), the Father as the vinedresser (vs. 1), and believers as the branches (vs. 5).
Allegorical stories have several points of comparison. In John 10:1-18, the allegory of the good shepherd draws a point-by-point comparison between a number of elements (the door of the sheepfold, the shepherd, the sheep, the thief, and the hireling) and corresponding spiritual truths.
Allegories range on a continuum from the elusive to the explicit. In some, the details obviously point to a corresponding group of concepts, as in the allegory of the good shepherd; in others, the thematic implications of the images is less clear. Jesus told the parable of the soils to the multitudes but explained the spiritual application of each point of the story to His disciples (Matt. 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20). While parables use realistic imagery, allegories often use words in a figurative rather than literal sense. The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) uses “sheep” literally, but the allegory of the good shepherd uses “sheep” figuratively; the parable of the vineyard owner (Luke 20:9-21) uses “vineyard” literally, but the allegory of the vine and the branches uses “vine” figuratively.
The allegories in the Old Testament include Israel as a vine in Psalm 80:8-15, the woman of folly in Proverbs 7, the allegory of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:1-7, and the allegory of the two sisters in Ezekiel 23. New Testament allegories include the foundation and superstructure in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and the spiritual armor in Ephesians 6:11-17.
On rare occasions, the New Testament allegorizes Old Testament narratives that were not intended to teach truth by correspondence. Paul does this in Galatians 4:21-31 when he turns the story of Hagar and Sarah into an allegory of law and grace.
Dark sayings Scripture contains enigmatic or dark sayings (Num. 12:8; Ps. 49:4; 78:2) that state truth in an obscure way and must be searched out to find the meaning.
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people” (Gen. 49:10).
“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1).
“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse” (Matt. 9:16).
Also see Isaiah 21:11-12; Daniel 5:25-28; Matthew 9:15,17; Luke 11:34-36.
A riddle is a concise and puzzling statement posed as a problem to be solved or explained.
“Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (Judg. 14:14; cf. 14:12-19).
“Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666” (Rev. 13:18).
A fable is a fictitious narrative intended to enforce a useful truth or a moral lesson. Fables often involve plants and animals that speak and act like human beings. See the fable of the trees in Judges 9:8-15 (interpreted and applied in 9:16-20), the fable of the thistle in 2 Kings 14:9, and the fable/allegory of the two eagles in Ezekiel 17:2-10.
Symbols are figures of representation in which one thing is used to suggest another. The symbol is a literal object that conveys a lesson or truth.
The pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 13:21-22) symbolized God’s glory and presence among His people.
Blood symbolized the life of an animal or human (Lev. 17:11; Deut. 12:23-25).
Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14) symbolized the judgment and restoration of Israel.
The basket of summer fruit in Amos 8:1 symbolized the end (8:2) that would come in judgment. The Hebrew words for “summer fruit” and “end” sound almost alike, and ripe fruit is either consumed or spoiled--an apt symbol of judgment.
Numbers (e.g., four, seven, and twelve), colors (e.g., blue, purple, scarlet, white, and black), and metals (e.g., gold, silver, bronze, iron) are used symbolically in Scripture.
Also see Jeremiah 1:13; 13:1-11; 24:1-10; Daniel 2:31-45; Zechariah 1:18-19; 5:1-4; Revelation 1:20.
Types are prophetic symbols. A number of Old Testament people, events, and things are types that correspond to New Testament antitypes.
Melchizedek was a type of Christ (Gen. 14:18-20; Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:1- 10).
David was a type of Christ (Ps. 22:1-21; 69:7,9,20; cf. Rom. 15:3).
Adam was “a type of Him who was to come” (Rom. 5:14), that is, Christ.
The earthly tabernacle was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5).
Also see 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 10:6,11; 2 Cor. 6:16-18.
Narrative, or story, is the most common literary form in the Bible. Both testaments are full of the stories of God’s redemptive work on behalf of His people. This form is so prominent in Scripture because the God of the Bible acts in the arena of human history.
On one level, hundreds of individual narratives like the story of Jacob and Laban are sprinkled throughout the Scriptures. On a higher level, these individual narratives combine to form major motifs like Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage and conquest of Canaan. On the highest level, these larger narratives fit together into the ultimate narrative of God’s plan to deliver people out of darkness and bring them into the light of His kingdom.
On each level, the biblical narratives contain universal patterns or archetypes that capture the essential themes of human experience. The inner and outer conflicts between good and evil, heaven and hell, light and darkness, angels and demons, wisdom and foolishness, faith and doubt, courage and cowardice, obedience and rebellion, hope and despair are enacted throughout the narratives of Scripture. When all the stories are combined together, a magnificent, unified plot with a beginning, middle, and end unfolds, and the reader realizes that he or she is a part of this plot. From creation to consummation, the sovereign hand of God is upon the course of history.
There are a remarkable number of parallels between the first and last three chapters of the Bible. These chapters portray the beginning and the end of the great drama of God’s creative/redemptive purposes. Genesis 1-3 moves from the creation of the universe to the creation and fall of man. Revelation 20-22 moves from the judgment of the unsaved to the creation of the new universe in which believers will dwell with God. The stories of creation and consummation both stand at the transitional point between time and eternity. Enclosed between these two accounts is the stage of human history on which each person must make the choice between one of two destinies: endless separation from God or endless fellowship with God. Both of these narratives blend figurative with literal language since they deal with realms of existence that transcend our experience. They combine to tell us that our brief earthly existence is not all there is; we must live in the light of who we are (creation) and where we are going (consummation).
An epic is a long narrative, often written in an elevated poetic style, that combines many episodes. Although written in prose, portions of the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt to Canaan in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy combine together to fit the epic form. The exodus epic is unified by strong nationalistic elements (the formation of the nation of Israel), a central hero (Moses), and the underlying motif of a quest (the promised land). But unlike conventional epics, the real hero of the exodus epic is not a man, but God Himself. The account extolls the mighty acts of God, not Moses, and focuses more on moral and spiritual values than on human accomplishments. While a conventional epic would praise the exploits of men, the exodus epic exposes the Israelites as a rebellious, frail, and sinful people in need of the grace and deliverance of God.
A good portion of the narratives in Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy 31 is written in the form of legislation for the nation of Israel. The law consists of the testimonies (moral duties), the statutes (ceremonial duties), and the judgments or ordinances (civil and social duties). The bulk of the more than 600 commandments in the Pentateuch are found in the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 2O:22-23:33), the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26), and the Code of Holiness (Lev. 17-26). Part of the Old Testament law consists of apodictic (“do” and “do not”) commands. These are direct commands that generally apply to every Israelite. The rest of the law is casuistic (case-by-case). These commandments are conditioned by specific circumstances.
The law is written in the ancient form of a binding covenant between a lord and his vassal. Obedience on the part of the vassal would lead to agreed benefits and protection, but disloyalty would lead to punishment (cf. the blessings and cursings of Deuteronomy 27-28).
In this form of narrative literature, the story is based on the exploits of a principal character. To the extent that the hero or heroine embodies accepted social and moral virtues, the story of his or her life becomes a model for others to imitate. The protagonist’s values, the roles he or she fills, and the way he or she faces conflicts are important themes in heroic narrative.
Old Testament examples of this literary form include the story of Abraham (Gen. 12- 25), Jacob (Gen. 27-35), Joseph (Gen. 37-50), Gideon (Judg. 6-8), Ruth, David (1 Sam. 16--2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 11-29), Esther, and Daniel.
Some of the protagonists of Scripture fell from a position of blessing to calamity. The narratives of their lives are tragic because of the disastrous change in their fortunes. There is a greatness about most of them that is marred by a fatal flaw in their character. This is why the reader hopes in vain that the story will turn out better than it does.
In each case, the tragic protagonist faces one or more critical moral choices and fails. The consequences of this failure may not be immediate, but they inevitably bind him in a web from which he cannot escape. He is at once responsible for and victimized by his tragedy. In some cases like Samson in Judges 13-16, the tragic hero gains insight from his suffering. Other biblical examples of tragic narrative are Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), Saul (1 Sam. 9-31), and Solomon (1 Kings 1-11; 2 Chron. 1- 9).
More of the Bible is written in poetry than most people imagine. In addition to the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon, a substantial portion of the prophetic literature (including most of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah) is also poetic. Almost half of the Old Testament is poetry, but in many translations some of this poetry appears in prose form.
The poetry of the Bible is an effective vehicle for communicating the full range of human emotions from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. In a very personal way, the poets and prophets expressed their sorrows, the plight of their people, and their unshakable hope in the Lord.
While many forms of poetry rhyme sounds, Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas. Since the rhythm is logical rather than phonetic, much of it is retained in translation. In most verses, the thought of the second line is parallel to the thought of the first line. Some verses are made of three, four, and even five lines, and the parallelism can extend throughout.
In this form of parallelism, the thought of the first line is repeated in different words in the next line(s).
Lord, how they have increased who trouble me!
Many are they who rise up against me (Ps. 3:1).
Also see Genesis 4:23-24; Psalm 49:1; 103:3; Proverbs 11:7,25; 12:28.
In this case, the thought of the first line is sharply contrasted in the next line(s).
A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov. 15:1).
Also see Psalm 1:6; Proverbs 10:1; 15:2,4-9,13-15,18-22; 27:6.
Here, the thought of the first line is added to or developed in the next line(s).
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1).
Also see Psalm 1:2; 19:7-9; Proverbs 4:23; Isaiah 55:6-7.
This is an external parallelism that balances sets of lines. For example, the first and fourth lines and the second and third lines may be parallel as in Proverbs 23:15-16 (cf. Ps. 5:7). In Psalm 30:8-10, lines 1-2 are parallel to lines 7-8, and lines 3-4 are parallel to lines 5-6.
This uses parallelism to build to a climax by repeating part of the first line and adding to it in the next line(s).
Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones,
Give unto the Lord glory and strength.
Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name (Ps. 29:1-2a).
Also see the rest of Psalm 29.
Here, a literal statement in one line is elevated by a figurative image in another.
As cold water to a weary soul,
So is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:25).
Also see Psalm 42:1; Proverbs 11:22.
In addition to these forms of parallelism, there are also incomplete forms which have only partial correspondence. Another technique in some Hebrew poetry is the use of acrostics, or alphabetical poems. In this poetry, the first line or set of lines begins with the first letter of the alphabet, and the poem proceeds in this way to the end of the alphabet (examples include Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 111, 112, 119, 145; Prov. 31:10-31; Lam. 1-4).
While there is some meter in biblical poetry, it is not a major characteristic. When meter is used, it appears in the form of varying combinations of stressed units per line (e.g., 3:3, 3:2, 2:2:3). This meter, in turn, is interlaced with the different kinds of parallelism. The stressed units and part of the parallelism cannot be discerned without the Hebrew text. Even with the Hebrew, the divisions between the stanzas or strophes is sometimes unclear, since the thought breaks are not always of uniform length.
The book of Job is an excellent example of narrative poetry that portrays a dramatic story. The plot moves from prosperity to calamity to the restoration of prosperity. There are a number of plot conflicts, including Satan’s conflicts with God and Job, the conflict between Job and his friends, and the conflict between Job and God. The prologue (chapters 1-2) and the epilogue (42:7-17) are written in prose, and the rest of the book is in the form of a poetic dialogue. The action moves slowly in the poetic section, and the reader is expected to concentrate more on the development of the imagery and the concepts than on the sequence of events. Within this great poetic narrative there are many lyric passages. It also part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament because of the themes it explores, including the goodness and sovereignty of God in view of the problem of evil and suffering.
Lyric poetry is predominant in the book of Psalms and the Song of Solomon. The psalms speak to the mind through the heart. Since they were set to music, their emotional effect was even greater when they were sung as part of Israel’s worship in the first and second temples. They are rich in the artistry of parallelism, figurative imagery, symbolism, multiple meanings, and emotive vocabulary.
Each of the psalms is a brief literary unit that develops a theme and makes a distinctive contribution to the psalter. The psalms are structured in different ways and can be classified into several types, including individual and communal lament psalms, individual and communal thanksgiving psalms, descriptive praise psalms, and wisdom psalms. The different types of psalms had specific functions in the individual and corporate worship of Israel.
This literary form uses the idyllic imagery of rural poetry or shepherds in a rustic setting to portray a feeling or a truth. Psalm 23, for example, takes the reader through a day in the life of a shepherd who cares for his sheep from morning to night. The psalmist uses these images to express God’s gracious care for His people. Jesus carries this a step farther in His allegory of the good shepherd (John 10:1-18). The prophets also made effective use of pastoral settings to depict the blessings of God’s kingdom (see Isa. 40:10-11; 41:18-19; Hos. 14:4-7; Amos 9:13-15). The Song of Solomon describes the experience of love by praising the beauty and virtue of the beloved through natural and rustic images (see Song of Sol. 2:8-17; 7:10-13).
The Bible is full of beautiful examples of the literary form of encomium, or praise. The godly man, for example, is praised in Psalms 1 and 15, and wisdom is personified as a woman and praised in Proverbs 8. The last 22 verses of Proverbs uses the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet to praise a virtuous wife (Prov. 31:10-31). First Corinthians 13 is an unsurpassed encomium of agape, and the author of Hebrews praises faith in 11:1-12:2.
But the Scriptures reserve the highest praise for the Lord. See Psalms 8, 19, 29, 33, 36, 103-105, 111, 113, 117, 135, 136, 139, 146-48, and 150. Also see the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The Lord Jesus Christ is praised in John 1:1- 18; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-18; and Hebrews 1:1-14. The Revelation portrays a magnificent scene of praise for the Father (4:8-11), the Son (5:9-10), and combined praise for the Father and Son (5:11-14).
While the wisdom literature of the Bible is denoted more by content than by form, it usually appears in the form of didactic poetry that teaches principles about life. Most of this literature is in Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Some of the Psalms (1, 37, 119) and much of the book of James can also be categorized as wisdom literature. Jeremiah 18:18 mentions three classes of spiritual leaders in Hebrew culture: priests, prophets, and the wise (cf. 1 Kings 4:29-34; Job 12:12). Joseph, Abagail, Solomon, and Daniel are examples of those who possessed prudence and wisdom. As observers of life, the wise could give right answers in critical situations. They were highly practical rather than theoretical; they knew the course of action that would lead to the desired results in life. The sages analyzed conduct and studied the consequences of given actions.
Wisdom is more than shrewdness or intelligence; it relates to practical righteousness and moral acumen. The key word for wisdom is hokhmah, which literally means “skill.” Wisdom is the skill in the art of living life with each area under the dominion of God. It is the ability to apply truth in the light of experience. The wisdom literature stresses that the basis for true success in skillful living is the fear of the Lord.
This literary form is generally expressed in poetic terms and uses a variety of techniques including parallelism (antithetic parallelism dominates Prov. 10-15, and synthetic parallelism dominates Prov. 16-22), numerical sequences (Prov. 30:15-31), alliteration (Eccles. 3:1-8), and the full spectrum of figurative language. The proverb is a special feature of wisdom literature because it uses a comparison or simple illustration to make a poignant observation about life. Proverbs are practical and concise; they are meant to be read slowly in small sections. These maxims are easily memorized statements that are true to life even though individual cases may differ.
The prophets were divinely appointed individuals who received God’s messages through dreams, visions, angels, and direct encounters with the Lord, and related these messages in oral, visual, and written form. Many of them like Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha left no written records, but those who did are responsible for about onefourth of the Bible.
The bulk of the seventeen prophetic books in the Old Testament apply the standards of the moral law of God to the attitudes and practices of the day (twelve were written before, two during, and three after the exile in Babylon). As spokesmen who declared God’s will for His people, the prophets proclaimed this word through warnings and promises. They exposed the sinful practices of the people, warned about judgment to come, and called the people to repentance. They stressed the need for right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). Theirs was a twofold message of condemnation because of the sin of man and consolation because of the grace of God.
The prophetic books engage in forthtelling and foretelling. The bulk is forthtelling, or spiritual insight: exhortation, reproof, and instruction. The remainder is foretelling, or spiritual foresight: prediction of immediate and distant events to come. These prophecies were not intended to satisfy curiosity, but to show that God is in sovereign control over all of history. Most of these predictions have already been fulfilled, because they concerned the judgment of various nations including Israel and Judah. Some anticipated the coming Messiah and were fulfilled in the first advent of our Lord. Others await fulfillment in the events associated with His second advent.
There is a great diversity and individuality among the prophets ranging from the sophistication of Isaiah to the simplicity of Amos. Their personalities, backgrounds, interests, and writing styles vary widely. These writings usually take the form of collected oracles that are not always in chronological order. They utilize poetic parallelism, parables, allegories, and other figurative language as well as covenant lawsuits (e.g., Hos. 4), woe oracles (e.g., Mic. 2:1-5), and salvation oracles (e.g, Jer. 31:1-9). Some of them also express their message through satire, which is “the exposure, through ridicule or rebuke, of human vice or folly” (Leland Ryken). Two examples are the book of Jonah and Amos 4.
The book of Revelation is a highly structured work that combines elements of almost all the literary forms in the Bible, including figurative language, parallelism, typology and symbols, epic, narrative, lyric and narrative poetry, and praise. The three dominant literary types in this book are apocalypse, prophecy, and epistle. Apocalyptic literature appears in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah as well as extrabiblical books dating from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. John’s Apocalypse shares the basic characteristics of this kind of literature: visions, symbolic language and use of numbers, highly stylized structure, a concern for future events (eschatology), the warfare between good and evil, the judgment of evil, and divine deliverance in time of persecution. The book of Revelation combines these features with a genuinely prophetic word for the church, and puts all of this in the form of an epistle (Rev. 1:4-7; 22:21).
The Revelation is full of contrasting themes: light vs. darkness, heaven vs. earth, time vs. eternity, the forces of good vs. the forces of evil, the establishment of the city of God (new Jerusalem) vs. the destruction of the city of evil (Babylon), the sealing of the saints vs. the mark of the beast, the wedding feast of the Lamb vs. eternal separation from God. The book abounds with archetypal images (universal qualities of human experience). Its richness in symbolism (e.g., numbers, animals, colors, minerals) has led to many interpretive problems, resulting in four major approaches to the book.
Much of its structure revolves around the number seven (seven churches, 2-3; seven seals, 6-8:1; seven trumpets, 8:2-9:21; seven signs, 12-14; seven bowls, 15-16; seven final events, 17-22). Because of the abrupt shifts in the visions and events, it is difficult to arrange them in a clear chronological sequence. The Revelation makes abundant use of Old Testament imagery and ties together many biblical thematic strands into a great portrait of the consummation of all things. As it concludes the plot of Scripture from eternity to eternity, it shows that history is leading to a purposeful climax under the sovereign rule of the living God.
The Greek word euaggelion means “good news” or “glad tidings.” The good news about salvation in Christ was first proclaimed orally and later written in the unique literary form known as the gospels. They are highly episodic and do not fit the other literary categories like heroic narrative. The unifying theme of the gospels is the person and work of Jesus Christ who is portrayed not merely an example to be followed, but as the way to eternal life and the rightful object of man’s supreme allegiance. Though they are full of biographical material, the gospels are really thematic portraits of the God-man, taken from four different perspectives. The gospels combine blocks of sayings, dialogues, and narratives to confront the reader with the unique claims and credentials of Christ. They are four complementary accounts that provide a composite picture of the Savior in such a way that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. In a highly selective manner, each develops major themes in the life of Christ with particular stress on the events of the last week. The gospels depict the conflict between belief and unbelief and build to the climax of the crucifixion and resurrection. Another major theme is the work of Jesus in relation to the kingdom of God. Christ’s death and resurrection inaugurated the beginning of the age to come; in one sense, the time of God’s rule has already begun, but in another sense it still awaits consummation with His second coming. The gospels display Jesus’ unparalleled facility with poetic forms. He was a master of using analogies in nature and human experience to illustrate His teachings. His application of similes, metaphors, parables, allegories, hyperbole, irony, paradox, proverbs, and questions is striking and illuminating.
There are several excellent examples of oratory in the Scriptures. Solomon’s sermon and prayer at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 6 well illustrates the art of speaking in public with force and eloquence.
That the Lord Jesus possessed an unsurpassed oratorical ability is clear from His brief sayings to His extended discourses. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is a model of persuasiveness and exhortation that makes brilliant use of metaphor, rhetorical questions, analogies from nature, synonymous and antithetic parallel construction, repetition, and satire. Those who were privileged to hear these words were astonished at His teaching (Matt. 7:28-29).
The apostle Paul was also a skillful and effective orator. The book of Acts records the effect of his speeches and teachings on different audiences (13:16-45; 14:12; 21:40- 22:24; 24:10-25; 26:1-28). His address before the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34, although cut short by the audience, illustrates some of the features of classical rhetoric. Paul began by using the classic form of the exordium, or introduction, to gain the attention and interest of his hearers. By using an anecdote and quoting from Stoic poets, he sought to win common ground with his sophisticated audience. Beginning in verse 30, Paul moved into the second part of his address, the propositio, or statement of his thesis. But the resurrection of the dead was too much for this Greek audience that viewed the spirit as good but the body as evil.
On one end of the spectrum of letters is the personal, nonliterary letter; on the other end is the formal epistle that is intended for the public and posterity. The epistles of the New Testament are unusual in that they combine elements of both, in varying combinations. Most of them, like 1 and 2 Thessalonians, generally follow the standard form of ancient letters: the name of the writer, the name of the recipient, a greeting, a wish or thanksgiving, the body of the letter, and a final greeting and farewell. But Hebrews lacks most of these elements, and 1 John lacks all of them. Nine of the New Testament epistles are addressed to churches or groups of churches (they were to be read aloud in congregational meetings), and four (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon) are addressed to individuals. All of them arose out of specific occasions. Some are formal in nature (e.g., Romans and Hebrews), while others are quite personal (e.g., 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon). There is also a wide variation in the amount of theological content, though none of the epistles were simply intended to be theological treatises. Formal or informal, they all bear the mark of apostolic authority.
The literary quality of the epistles does not surface in their form but in the stylistic richness that they exhibit throughout. Many of Paul’s letters have long, eloquent sentences that flow into a climax (cf. Eph. 1:3-14,15-23; 3:14-21). Paul’s extended military metaphor in Ephesians 6:10-17 makes use of vivid images and parallel construction (also see 1 Cor. 13). There are lyric passages as in Romans 8:31-39; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16; and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. The epistles also enhance their persuasiveness through passages written in an exalted style (see 1 Cor. 15:39- 58; 2 Cor. 4:8-9; 6:4-10; Phil. 2:1-2; 4:8; Jas.3:6-12).
“There are hundreds of ways of interpreting the Bible--what makes you think that yours is correct?” While it is true that Christians disagree over a number of issues (e.g., the meaning of Genesis 1-2, the fulfillment of prophecy, the justifiability of war), there is far more agreement over the cardinal doctrines of Christianity than most people think. Almost all denominations share the foundational truths about God, man, sin, and salvation (what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”). The vast majority of Christians, for example, concur with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
When interpretive disagreement occurs, it is usually because of faulty or inconsistent methods of interpretation (hermeneutics). Some people, for instance, impose their own preconceived notions upon the pages of Scripture instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself. But when the basic principles of interpretation are put into practice, most difficulties disappear. Here are fifteen principles along with specific exercises that will sharpen your skills in interpreting the Bible:
Do not regard the Bible as a textbook; it is not merely an object to be observed but an oracle to be obeyed. Approach it with a proper attitude of reverence, care, and receptivity. It is alive with the Spirit of God, and it has the power to change the lives of those who respond to it. It is trustworthy and inexhaustible. There are always fresh truths within its pages, and the more deeply we mine, the more insight we will gain. It can transform our thinking and gradually move us from a human to a divine perspective.
Exercise: Inspiration has been defined as “God’s superintendence of the human authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to man in the words of the original autographs” (Charles C. Ryrie). Read the following passages and briefly describe how each aids your understanding of inspiration: Jeremiah 30:2; Matthew 5:17-18; 15:4; John 10:35; 17:17; Acts 28:25; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; Revelation 22:19.
The authority of Scripture is not limited merely to matters of religious faith; it extends to all that it affirms, including historical events, geography, chronology, and the miracles of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible has been challenged in many ways--for instance, Daniel did not write the prophecies in the book of Daniel; Jesus did not feed the multitudes but inspired them to share their lunches. But if the Bible is not trustworthy in matters like these, how can we be sure that it is reliable in other areas? Either we place ourselves under the authority of Scripture or we do not. To fully understand its message, we must submit to it.
Exercise: According to John 7:17, what condition must be met to recognize Jesus’ true authority?
The Word of God should be our final court of appeal for authority. As valuable as tradition and experience are, we must interpret them in light of Scripture. The church does not decide what Scripture teaches; Scripture determines what the church teaches. Tradition is an important authority, but it is not the ultimate authority. Many traditions, true and false, have surfaced throughout the history of the church. If a tradition or personal experience is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture, it is not of the Lord. On the other hand, experience supports the validity of biblical truth; if Christianity is true, it should be practical enough to change lives.
Exercise: A person decides to increase his giving over a period of several years and discovers that he is better off financially than when he began. Is he justified in teaching that the same thing will happen to others when they increase their giving?
Why or why not?
Like tradition, reason is a significant authority. But it, too, must be placed under the dominion of Scripture. The Bible affirms a number of truths that seem impossible to resolve. How can Jesus Christ be fully God and fully man? How can the three Persons in the one Godhead be fully and completely God and not each other? These matters are not ultimately contradictory, but they do go beyond the limits of human comprehension. There are only two choices: submit our reason to the authority of Scripture and accept the tension, or submit Scripture to the authority of our reason and resolve the tension (e.g., play down the deity or humanity of Christ). Exercise: The Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all, but man is responsible for his decisions. Compare Romans 9:6-21 with Romans 10:9-15. What do you do with the tension between these passages?
This principle counsels us to treat the Bible as a complete book, since it is a unity in diversity. We should seek to relate each book we study to the central theme of Scripture: God’s loving plan to redeem and restore imperfect people through the perfect work of His Son. The better we grasp the big picture, the better we will be able to see the details in proper perspective.
The New Testament builds upon the Old, and requires a familiarity with the history and imagery of the Old Testament. Without this, many New Testament passages would be extremely difficult to understand. Hebrews 9, for example, assumes a knowledge of the structure and function of the tabernacle.
Exercise: How would you answer the charge that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and judgmental, whereas the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful?
The Bible is a unified book, but as we study its pages, we should also remember that it is a progressive revelation. Over the fifteen or more centuries during which it was written, its portrait of God and His redemptive program was gradually enriched and clarified. It has been said that “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”
This is not to say that the religion or ethical standards of the Bible evolved from a primitive to a sophisticated level. Rather, it means that the revelation of the person and character of God has become clearer through the course of biblical history (see Heb. 1:1-2). Since the fullness of God’s revelation is in the New Testament, we must avoid the temptation of reading the New Testament back into the Old. At the same time, we should avoid the opposite pitfall of projecting Old Testament civil or ceremonial laws into our own time (e.g., the dietary laws). Exercise: Read Hebrews 10:1-18 in light of this principle.
This principle tells us to let the Bible speak for itself. We should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, since it is its own best interpreter and commentator. Move from the known to the unknown by interpreting unclear passages in the light of those which are clear. When wrestling with a difficult passage, consult other verses which deal with the same subject in a simpler way. Then bring the unclear into conformity with the clear. Everything that is necessary to salvation and sanctification is clearly revealed in Scripture.
It is also wise to gain familiarity with the gospels and epistles before tackling more difficult books like Ezekiel and Revelation.
Exercise: Compare Galatians 5:4 with John 10:27-29 on the issue of salvation.
Which passage is clearer?
To be truly biblical, a specific doctrine must incorporate everything the Word has to say about it. We build up our understanding of theology by comparing Scripture with Scripture. It is unwise to base any doctrine on one or two miscellaneous verses or on controversial, obscure passages.
This principle tells us to correlate the teachings of Scripture by using cross references. 1. Verbal cross references compare the use of a word or expression in several passages. 2. Conceptual cross references compare similar ideas or doctrines like the resurrection or redemption. 3. Parallel cross references compare passages that recount the same incident like the feeding of the 5,000 or the life of Hezekiah in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. Correlation involves both inductive reasoning (specific passages to general conclusions) and deductive reasoning (general premises to specific applications).
Exercise: Here are some difficult verses that have been used as proof texts for unbiblical doctrines: John 15:6; Hebrews 6:4-6 are used to refute the security of the believer. James 2:24 is used to show that works are necessary for salvation. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16 are used to teach that water baptism is a necessary condition for salvation. What is the problem in each case?
Exercise: Mormons use 1 Corinthians 15:29 to justify their practice of proxy baptism for unbelievers. How do you respond?
Interpret every passage in light of its immediate context (preceding and following verses, paragraph, chapter) and broad context (book, testament, Bible). A verse lifted out of its context can become a pretext. It is not as easy to twist the meaning of a verse when it is observed in its setting.
The first level of context is the material that surrounds the passage you are interpreting. For example, to interpret the three parables in Luke 15, it is important to notice that Jesus was addressing them to the Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:1-3).
Exercise: Use James 1:2-4 to discover the kind of wisdom James had in mind in 1:5. Use Philippians 4:10-12 to interpret Paul’s statement in 4:13. The second level of context is the book in which your passage appears. Your approach should be appropriate to the Testament, whether Old or New, and it should also be consistent with the theme, purpose, and style of the book. The third level of context is the Bible as a whole. Relate the passage you are considering to the broad context of scriptural teaching. What contribution does it make to God’s plan in human history?
The fourth level of context is the culture and historical background in which the passage was written. See “The Principle of Background.”
Take the text at face value and interpret it in its normal or literal sense. Do not interpret it in a symbolic or allegorical way unless the context tells you that parables, symbols, or other figures of speech are being used. It is always better to identify the plain and natural sense of a passage instead of looking for hidden meaning. It cannot be literal and figurative at the same time. For example, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7) is figurative because it uses an inanimate object to describe a living person; it cannot mean that Jesus is a wooden door. Only when the literal meaning does not fit the context, as in poetic or parabolic language, should we interpret a passage figuratively.
Exercise: How do you approach the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22:21-35? Should you understand it literally or figuratively? Why?
A passage normally has only one interpretation, though it may lead to a number of applications. This principle tells us to distinguish the single interpretation from the multiple applications.
The New Testament tells us that the events of the Old Testament have moral and spiritual applications for us today (see Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6,11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but this does not give us a license to read allegorical meanings into these events. It is true that the New Testament sometimes tells us that specific Old Testament events are symbolic of spiritual truths. For instance, Paul tells us that the rock that provided the Israelites with water in the wilderness is symbolic of Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). In Galatians, he uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as an allegory of the old and new covenants (Gal. 4:21-31). But this symbolic use of historical facts was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and as interpreters of Scripture, we cannot lay claim to the same authority. Unless the inspired writers of Scripture designate a secondary or “hidden” meaning in an event or a prophecy, we are on shaky ground when we look for such a meaning. If we try to impose more than one sense on a passage without biblical warrant, we will fall into the trap of spiritualizing, symbolizing, and allegorizing.
Therefore, we should normally look for a single meaning and prefer the clearest and most obvious interpretation when there is more than one possibility. Any applications we draw from a passage should be consistent with its meaning. We may, for example, observe the way Jesus used the simple analogy of water in talking with the woman at the well and decide to look for effective analogies when we have opportunities to share the gospel with others. But it would be wrong to apply the passage by concluding that we must use the analogy of water when we tell others about Christ.
Exercise: Some people interpret the Song of Solomon as a portrait of Christ and His bride, the church. Is this a valid interpretation? Is it a valid application?
This principle tells us to consider the historical background of the portion of Scripture we are interpreting. This, along with any relevant customs and geography, provides the proper backdrop to add to our understanding of the passage. Ask the question, “What did this passage mean to the people of that time and culture?”
The historical setting includes the situation of the author and his purpose for writing the book or epistle. Who wrote it? When was it written? What was the occasion? What are the historical references in the book? Who were the recipients? Who are the main characters?
When Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he was in prison, waiting to know if he would be executed or released. Ten years before, he was a prisoner in Philippi (Acts 16:12-40). Background information like this will greatly aid our understanding of the themes and allusions in this epistle.
The physical setting includes any geographical references in the passage or book. The book of Amos, for example, begins with a catalog of judgments on the nations that surround Israel. A map will show how these catastrophes gradually spiral in on Israel herself (Amos 1:3-2:16). The physical setting also relates to references to plant and animal life.
The cultural setting includes information about manners and customs of Bible lands that would help our understanding of the meaning of a passage. Biblical and extrabiblical sources provide us with information about such things as ceremonial cleansing, idolatrous practices, wedding customs, oriental hospitality, and so forth. A knowledge of the historical, physical, and cultural settings will give us a better picture of what a passage meant to the people to whom it was written.
Exercise: How does Acts 13-15 aid your understanding of the epistle to the Galatians?
We should understand words in a way that is consistent with how they were used at the time they were written.
Lexical study--Even without knowing the original languages, one can pick any word in the Bible, discover the Hebrew or Greek word from which it was translated, and learn the literal meaning of that word. This can be done with tools like Strong’s Concordance, Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, and Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. It is also helpful to compare translations. Comparative study--Using a concordance, you can determine how often a word is used and what writers used it.
Theological study--The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and the Dictionary of New Testament Theology are excellent tools for discovering the theological usage of significant words. Be sure to interpret any word in relation to its immediate context.
Exercise: In what different ways is the word “faith” used in Romans 14:23; Galatians 1:23; 1 Timothy 5:11-12?
This principle tells us to be aware of the grammatical details of the sentences of Scripture. Sentences are units of thought that are governed by the rules of grammar. Obviously, it would be best to study grammatical constructions in the original language, but since this is not possible for most students of Scripture, much of the needed information is available in good Bible commentaries. When focusing on a particular verse, it is a good idea to see what more than one commentator says about it.
Exercise: Look up John 1:14 in two commentaries. What grammatical insight did you gain?
This rule tells us to discover the meaning of a passage rather than impose one upon it. Every interpreter has a theological perspective, whether he knows it or not. If we are not careful, our natural tendency will be to read our doctrinal view into Scripture by overlooking some passages and camping on others. When this happens, our theology becomes more authoritative than the Bible. Instead of interpreting a passage on the basis of a dogmatic system (eisegesis), we must be willing to modify our thinking according to what Scripture really says (exegesis).
Exercise: Read the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. How do you think people of different theological persuasions would approach this parable? What do you think is the central point of the parable?
As we saw in Section IV, the Bible uses a wide variety of literary forms. As interpreters, we must take these literary genres into account, because they control the meanings of sentences. We will look briefly at short figures of speech, parables (an extended figure of speech), and prophecy.
We saw that we must understand a passage literally unless the context indicates that figurative language is being used. When this is the case, we should enjoy such imagery, because the abundance of figures of speech in the Bible adds beauty, appeal, and persuasiveness to the written Word.
The Bible accommodates divine revelation to the human mind by using human languages, idioms, thought forms, and experience. This is why the language used to describe heaven (e.g., jewels, gold, no tears), and hell (e.g., fire) is cast in terms of human experience.
When the Bible speaks of God, one of the most common figures of speech is anthropomorphism (e.g., His hands, feet, eyes, mouth). This does not mean that God has a physical body any more than Psalm 91:4 means that He is a giant bird (“He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge”). By its very nature, figurative language should not be taken literally. However, this is not to say that there is no literal reality behind the figure. When Christ called Himself the bread of life, He did not mean that He was a baked loaf; the literal reality behind this figure is that He offers spiritual nourishment and life to anyone who trusts in Him.
When you encounter a figure of speech, first try to decide what kind of figure it is (use Section IV) and then determine the literal reality behind the figure. Be sure to interpret in light of the context.
Exercise: What kind of figure does Jesus use in Matthew 16:19? What is the literal reality behind the figure?
Some of the biblical symbols are explained by the Scriptures (e.g., the stars and lampstands in Rev. 1:20). We can use these symbols as a guide to assist us in interpreting those symbols that are not explained. Some symbols, like the lion, are used in more than one way, and we must not force them to mean the same thing. Use the immediate and broad context and exercise caution, especially when dealing with numerical, mineral, and color symbolism.
When working with parables, try to determine the one principal truth rather than getting caught up in analyzing the details. Normally, a parable has one major point of comparison. The purpose of the parable of the soils, for example, was to illustrate the basic responses to the proclamation of the Word. If we attempt to examine the meaning behind each of the elements (as in an allegory), we will get mired in speculation. Instead, each of the details should be related to the main point of the parable.
Another rule is to see how much of the parable is explained by the Lord (e.g., Matt. 13:18-23; 25:13), and to use the context for any other interpretive clues (e.g., Luke 15:1-3).
Exercise: What is the central point in the parable of the faithful steward in Luke 12:41-48 (cf. Matt. 24:45-51)?
As with other Scripture, we should interpret prophecy in a literal way unless the context or its use in the New Testament indicates that the language is figurative (e.g., Mal. 4:5-6 compared with Matt. 11:13-14; 17:10-13). When interpreting prophecy, give attention to the historical background and the context in which it appears. Try to correlate your passage with similar prophecies (e.g., the day of the Lord and the restoration of Israel).
A number of prophecies were completely fulfilled soon after they were made (e.g., the destruction of Assyria in Isa. 10:5-19). Other prophecies were partially fulfilled in the days of the Old Testament, with the remainder fulfilled in the New Testament (e.g., Isa. 7:14). Some were partially fulfilled in the first advent of Christ and await complete fulfillment in His second advent (e.g., Isa. 52:13-53:12). From the perspective of the prophet, one event appeared to be right after the other, since he did not see the valley between the first and second mountain ranges. It is helpful in interpreting prophecy to be aware of these distinctions.
Exercise: Compare Luke 4:17-21 with Isaiah 61:1-2. What part did Christ leave out, and why?
There are many difficult passages in Scripture, and scholars continue to debate over their meaning. Figures of speech, prophetic symbolism, obscure historical and cultural allusions, lexical and grammatical difficulties, and other problems mean that we cannot be sure of the correct interpretation of some texts. At times, we need to admit our ignorance and acknowledge our limitations. It is better to humble ourselves than to dogmatically cling to uncertain interpretations. There are times when we should say, “I don’t know,” or, “I lean in this direction, but I can’t be sure.” There is a hierarchy of doctrines in Scripture--some are far more important than others. The more important the truth, the clearer the biblical revelation. Central truths like the character of God, the person and work of Christ, the way of salvation, and the fundamentals of Christian living are explicitly developed in the pages of Scripture. It is wise to concentrate on the essential truths rather than major on the minors.
When in doubt, we should check our results by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. The great nineteenth-century preacher Charles H. Spurgeon observed, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”
It is essential that we approach the Scriptures with conscious dependence on the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit. We must also be willing to put aside our theological bias and be open to whatever He desires to communicate to us through His Word.
For many people, the real problem is not so much in interpretation (understanding) as it is in application (moral response). Mark Twain understood this well when he said, “Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand. The Scripture which troubles me most is the Scripture I do understand.”
The Bible is often taken for granted, even by those who vehemently support its inspiration and authority. Many believers associate Bible study with drudgery; limiting themselves to mere samples, they never cultivate a true taste for its contents. There are two basic reasons for this problem: lack of a proper motivation and lack of a proper method. This section is designed to overcome these obstacles to fruitful Bible study.
To own a Bible is a tremendous responsibility--to whom much has been given, much is required (Luke 12:48). The Scriptures must not merely be owned, but known; not merely known, but believed; and not merely believed, but obeyed. To encourage this, we will look at the prerequisites, process, and practice of Bible study.
Even if we realize the tremendous significance of a working knowledge of the Word in our lives, the prospect of Bible study may still seem unexciting and unrewarding because of the inadequate procedures we have used in the past. We may be properly motivated, but we could also be victims of improper methods. When people grope in the darkness of haphazard approaches to Scripture, it is little wonder that Bible study seems so unsatisfying and has such a minimal place in their lives. The hit-and-miss approach of Bible roulette provides little spiritual nourishment. Without an ability to understand and apply the truths of Scripture in a practical and meaningful way, believers miss out on the benefits of exploring and discovering biblical truths for themselves. This is why so many Christians have only a secondhand knowledge of the Bible and rely almost exclusively on the input of teachers and preachers. The material on the process and practice of Bible study later in this handbook will provide you with a plan that will make your time in the Word more rewarding.
While we need a plan or method of getting into Scripture for ourselves, no approach to the study of the Bible will be effective without a measure of discipline and consistency. If we are convinced of the value of time spent in the Word (the problem of motivation) and realize that fruitful approaches are available (the problem of method), the only remaining obstacle is the inertia that keeps us from beginning and tempts us to stop. There is no shortcut to extracting the deeper spiritual truths from the mine of Scripture. Even though they are available to all, we must be willing to expend the effort to find them. The dividends are well worth the effort: consistent time in the Word will shape the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. But this consistency cannot be won without commitment.
We need a plan for Bible study, and we need the discipline to follow through with that plan so that it will become a habitual part of our lives. But these will do us little good if they are not pursued with a conscious sense of dependence upon the teaching and illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13-15). We must combine discipline (human responsibility) with dependence (divine sovereignty) as we approach the Scriptures. We cannot properly comprehend or respond to biblical truths in our own power; this requires the grace of God.
Exercise: What does 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 say about the role of the Holy Spirit in our understanding of God’s revelation?
We must not only open God’s Word--we must also be open to His Word. James tells us that we must prove ourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves (Jas. 1:22). This requires responsiveness to the truth we receive as we receive it. If we are disobedient to the light we have been given, we will not receive further illumination (cf. Mark 4:23-25). The old couplet is true:
Light obeyed increaseth light,
Light rejected bringeth night.
Salvation begins with a response to the person and work of Christ as revealed in Scripture. The sacred writings “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Non-Christians cannot “receive the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14) because they do not have the Spirit. Unless a person has a relationship with God, he cannot understand His Word. Similarly, one must grow in this relationship to increase his capacity to understand Scripture. Our fellowship with the Lord is dependent upon obedience (see John 15:14-15), and disobedient Christians cannot accept the solid food of the Word (see 1 Cor. 3:1-3). As G. Campbell Morgan observed, “if we persist in the things against which we are warned, the Bible becomes a sealed book, and we can neither know it, nor teach it.”
“Holy Scripture is the unchangeable word of God to which man must bend himself, and not something which he can bend to his own personal ideas” (Jean Danielou). The truth of the Bible is radical, and we will often be tempted to twist it to fit our preconceived opinions and tone down its message so that we will be more comfortable. We must be honest before the Word, and this means openness to new insights and willingness to give up cherished notions. “Unless we carefully examine the hidden assumptions that constitute our perspective, and seek to discover God’s unique perspective on issues critical to understanding Scripture, we are bound to misunderstand. And, misunderstanding, we will find the Bible a disappointing book” (Lawrence O. Richards).
“For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We must expose ourselves and others to the whole counsel of God, and this requires a comprehensive view of the entire spectrum of the Bible. There are five basic categories of Scripture: Old Testament historical books, poetical books, and prophetical books; New Testament historical books (gospels and Acts), and epistles. If we limit ourselves to any one of these categories (e.g., the gospels or the epistles) and avoid the others, we will suffer from an imbalanced diet and our perspective will be distorted.
1. In Bible study as well as prayer, it is crucial to choose the right time and place so that we can be consistent. This discipline of consistency is essential to a growing theoretical and practical knowledge of the Word of God. Listen to this statement by D. L. Moody:
A man stood up in one of our meetings and said he hoped for enough out of the series of meetings to last him all his life. I told him he might as well try to eat enough breakfast at one time to last him his lifetime. This is a mistake that people are making; they are running to religious meetings and they think that the meetings are going to do the work. But, if this doesn’t bring you into closer contact with the Word of God, the whole impression will be gone in three months.
2. Don’t be haphazard in selecting a passage for study. Try to be systematic in your choice of topics, chapters, and books so that your input will come from all parts of Scripture and touch upon every aspect of your life. Design your study sessions so that you will not sacrifice quality for quantity by overburdening yourself with unmanageable portions. Work with sections you can thoroughly digest.
3. Avoid getting bogged down in one translation. Use a primary version for indepth study, memorization, and meditation, but work with others from time to time. Some versions are better for broad reading, while others are more suited to detailed study.
4. Gather information from the text by bombarding it with as many questions as you can and doing the necessary research to answer them. This will force you to delve into the Word instead of skimming over it.
5. Using the information you have collected, determine what the author means and try to glean insights. State your conclusions in the form of principles.
Even if we observe all the rules, engage in conscientious and thorough research, and develop dazzling principles, we can still miss the whole point of Bible study. God did not inspire Scripture so that we could accumulate a great wealth of information, but “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). As Irving L. Jensen noted, “The important thing is not how many times you’ve gone through the Bible, but whether the Bible has gone through you.” We must respond to what we learn through our study by allowing God to transform our attitudes, feelings, and actions. Only then will our study of the Word be glorifying to God.
You should familiarize yourself with four basic steps that will enrich your time in the Word regardless of what specific method you use: ask, answer, accumulate, and apply. With them, Bible study will be productive and meaningful; without them, it will be dry and empty. Use these four steps until they become second nature to you. When you begin to saturate your study with them, your time in the Word will never be the same.
Ask key questions which when answered will provide insight into the meaning of the text. Perhaps the most important skill in Bible study lies in asking the right questions. Here are the questions you should use:
ASK . . .
WHO? -- The persons
WHAT? -- The problem, plot
WHEN? -- The time
WHERE? -- The place
WHY? -- The purpose, reason
HOW? -- The solution, resources
IS THERE . . .
A key word? -- Important to meaning
A comparison? -- Often introduced by “like”
A contrast? -- Often introduced by “but”
A repetition? -- Indicates emphasis
An atmosphere? -- Joy, anger, fear, etc.
A clear literary form? -- Poetry, prophecy, narrative, etc.
A progression? -- Events, ideas
A climax? -- Lesser to greater
A significant point of grammar? -- Tense, sentence structure, number (singular or plural)
Good questions demand accurate answers. There are two primary sources for these answers: the text and the tools of the trade.
We have already noted that Scripture best explains Scripture. You will find that many of your questions will be answered in the immediate and broad context of the passage you are studying. Always look here first, and you will experience the joy of creative discovery.
Begin to collect and use the tools of the trade. These will give you great help in finding the answers you need for any method of Bible study. Just as a carpenter would never go to work without his hammer and saw, the serious student of Scripture would be ill-equipped if the tools of Bible study are not within arm’s reach.
See the bibliography at the end of this section for some basic study tools you should consider adding to your library.
At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul gave this exhortation to Timothy, his child in the faith: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). A careful and consistent use of the text and the tools will help us fulfill this mandate.
Once you have asked the right questions and arrived at clear answers, you are ready to accumulate practical principles. The easiest way to accomplish this is to put on your “SPECS”:
Sins to Forsake
Promises to Claim
Examples to Follow
Commands to Obey
Summary Thought for Today
“The end result of all Bible study should be the application to life. Remember, the Word of God is ‘seed’ to be planted in your heart, to take root and bear fruit” (Lloyd M. Perry). Because biblical truth touches upon all areas and relationships of life, it is important that we maximize its impact by being very specific in the way we apply it. In this fourth stage, the SPECS you have accumulated throughout your study should now be prayerfully applied to these eight vital relationships:
1. God and You
2. You and Yourself
3. Husband and Wife
4. Parent and Child
5. Employer and Employee
6. Christian and Christian
7. Christian and World System --Non-Christians --Satan
8. Christian and Creation
The practice of Bible study involves a variety of methods that will enable you to uncover the treasures of Scripture in different ways. Each is designed to provide its own particular benefit, and it is a good idea to try using all of them to find the ones that help you the most. After becoming familiar with them, you may want to switch methods from time to time to avoid getting caught in the rut of routine. Some of them compliment each other and can be used concurrently. The process of ask, answer, accumulate, and apply can be successfully plugged into any of these methods.
This method is the broadest approach to Scripture because it involves the systematic reading of book after book according to a predetermined plan. There are many variations, but most of them relate to daily readings derived from a yearly goal (e.g., reading the whole Bible in a year).
1. There is no better way to get a comprehensive overview of the Word. Reading large segments of Scripture will give you an increasing familiarity with the flow of the people, places, events, and concepts in the Old and New Testaments.
2. Long-term use of planned reading will take you beyond favorite portions and expose you to the whole counsel of Scripture.
3. You will begin to think creatively across books and Testaments as you discover connections between concepts in different passages.
1. Set a goal for what you want to read and target a realistic completion date. If you decide to read the Bible in a year, you can choose one of the available reading schemes or formulate your own. It is usually desirable to include daily input from more than one portion of Scripture in your reading plan.
2. In Enjoy Your Bible, Irving L. Jensen has suggested a method that will help you actively interact with the text as you go along:
(1) Read aloud. This is especially helpful in devotional literature like the Psalms.
(2) Read carefully. Don’t be mechanical; try to be alert and observant.
(3) Read repeatedly. Additional readings will give you greater insight into a passage.
(4) Read peripherally. As you read a text, think about its context.
(1) Reflect purposefully. As you reflect upon the passage you are reading or have just completed, do it with the clear purpose of knowing God better and becoming more conformed to the image of His Son.
(2) Reflect imaginatively. Actively use your mind’s eye to visualize the situation and put yourself in it.
(3) Reflect humbly. Never take the Bible for granted; remember that you are privileged to reflect upon the revelation of the living God.
(4) Reflect prayerfully. Personalize your reading by communicating with God about the truth you derive from it.
(5) Reflect patiently. Reflection takes time and concentration. Include this in the time you have allotted for your reading.
When an important verse, thought, or application emerges from the text, jot it down so that you can retain it and refer to it in the future.
1) Respond with confession. When the Word exposes an area of sin in your attitudes or actions, quickly respond by acknowledging it so that you will continue to walk in the light.
(2) Respond with faith. Stand upon the truth of what you are reading.
(3) Respond with obedience. Resolve to take the truth you have just seen and put it into practice during the remainder of the day.
In this method, the student of the Word selects portions of Scripture according to a definite plan, commits them to memory, and keeps them memorized by means of periodic review.
1. This is the most effective way of making Scripture a part of your thought patterns.
The discipline and repetition necessary to memorize a text will plant it deep within your consciousness.
2. Memorization places Scripture at your fingertips, always at your disposal for use on unexpected occasions. It will also enhance your teaching, counseling, and witnessing.
3. “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Ps. 119:11). The passages you have memorized will assist you in times of temptation.
1. Purchase or create a set of Scripture memory cards. Look for a good variety of passages that you can use in many situations. (You may want to consider using the Navigators Topical Memory System to build your mental library of verses.)
2. Carry your cards with you and use them during the “dead times” of the day (waiting for an appointment, waiting on line, waiting on hold, waiting in traffic). The key to memorization is repetition, so expose yourself to your new verses briefly but often.
3. Set specific and realistic goals. Try to learn one or two verses a week. Periodically evaluate your progress and make the necessary adjustments.
4. Be sure to review what you have memorized so that it will not gradually slip away from you. The more you have learned, the more important a methodical program of review will become. Otherwise, you will suffer the frustration of losing faster than you learn.
5. Consider the possibility of memorizing a larger portion of Scripture, perhaps a chapter like John 15 or Romans 8, or even a small book like Philippians or Colossians. Memorization is a skill that improves with practice, and after you have mastered a good number of verses, you may be ready to tackle something bigger. One of the advantages of this is that you learn a passage in its context and force yourself to think according to an inspired sequence of concepts. Perhaps the easiest way of memorizing large portions of the Word is to work with it a chapter at a time. Read the chapter several times a week while using a 3x5 card to uncover a each line as you go through it. After a while, you will find yourself guessing more and more of the lines before you reveal them. Once you have learned a chapter, review it regularly to keep it with you.
Meditation is the process of ruminating or chewing on a passage to absorb its lifegiving contents. In this method, we focus our attention on a verse or phrase of Scripture or on a biblical concept and reflect upon it one or more times during the day.
1. Scripture tells us to meditate on God’s revealed truth day and night (see Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2; 119:97,148). Meditation directs the conscious mind during the day, and before retiring, programs the subconscious mind during the night. It is an excellent way to practice the presence of God.
2. This method integrates the Word of God into our minds, affections, and wills so that our thinking, emotions, and choices throughout each day are brought into increasing conformity with the truth. In Bible study, we master the Word; in meditation, the Word masters us.
3. Meditation enables us to ponder a passage in depth and so that we can gain meaningful personal insights that we would otherwise have overlooked.
4. This approach to biblical truth is an indispensable part of the process of abiding in Christ. As we abide in Him and His words abide in us, we bear spiritual fruit (see John 15:7-8).
1. Follow a plan to find appropriate texts for meditation. One way is to meditate on the verses you have already memorized. Gradually go through them by letting each become the theme of one day’s meditation. Jim Downing in his book on Meditation suggests another plan which involves the daily reading of every thirtieth psalm, the first corresponding to the day of the month. Five minutes before going to bed, read through the next day’s psalms until you find a verse that particularly speaks to you. Then close your Bible, and be sure to make that your last waking thought. If you wake up during the night, think about the verse. In the morning, read through the five psalms with your verse in mind and let it be the theme of your meditation that day.
2. Select specific times for brief interludes of meditation on the verse you have chosen for the day. These could be before meals and coffee breaks or you could use a watch with an alarm to remind you at regular intervals through the day (when the alarm sounds, immediately set it for the next brief meditation break).
3. If you are not working with a verse you have previously memorized, read your verse several times (try doing this aloud) until it becomes easy for you to think through it.
4. Use your imagination and begin to visualize the concepts in the verse in as many ways as you can. Put yourself into the words and into the historical context of the verse.
5. Ponder each word and phrase of the text and try to gain as many insights as you can. Creatively approach it from different angles, and ask the Spirit of God to minister to you through this process.
6. Personalize the passage and make it your own by putting it in the first person and praying it back to God. Commit yourself to pursue and apply the truths you have found in it.
7. Offer praise and worship to God on the basis of your day’s meditation.
In the synthetic method, we study an entire book of the Bible by moving from the parts (verses, paragraphs, major divisions) to the whole in order to discover the flow of thought and the central theme of the book.
1. This method gives you a bird’s eye view of Scripture and enables you to understand a book as a unit.
2. You will be able to think through the historical and/or logical sequence of the book.
3. Synthetic study gives you a comprehensive picture that will help you see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It provides a structure that will organize and integrate the details, so that you will be able to visualize the context of each verse and paragraph.
4. With this method, you will know what is in each paragraph of the book.
1. Select a book--begin with short and easily outlined books like Ephesians and Colossians.
2. Plan to work with the book at a convenient time and in a consistent way.
3. With a pen and paper ready for your notes and observations, read through the book in one sitting. In this reading, look for the central theme of the book and how it is developed.
4. Read the book a second time and use the questions found in “The Process of Bible Study” above. In the synthetic method, don’t get too detailed in your use of these questions. Note problem passages and use the tools to find answers.
5. Read the book a third time and create a title for each paragraph. Follow the ROSE guidelines to make your titles crisp and useful:
a. Retainable--easy to memorize.
b. Original--your very own.
c. Short--three or four words.
d. Exact--suited to the paragraph.
Be sure to memorize your paragraph titles so that it will be easy for you to think your way through the book.
6. During the fourth reading, go through the book with your SPECS on (sins to forsake, promises to claim, examples to follow, commands to obey, summary thought for today), so that you will accumulate practical principles to apply in your life. Record these principles or you will lose them.
7. Now you are ready to develop an original outline of the book. Create titles for the major sections of the book, and use your paragraph titles as well.
8. Finally, write a paragraph to summarize the main theme of the book. Show how each of the book’s paragraphs contributes to the development of this theme.
Here is a sample of a synthetic Bible study worksheet which records the results of steps 5 and 6 on the first five paragraphs of Ephesians. There is also a blank worksheet form which you can duplicate (you will need separate pages for steps 3, 4, 7, and 8). (Editor's Note: See print edition for this resource.)
The analytical method of Bible study focuses on the details and particulars of a passage and engages the student in an in-depth analysis of the Word. In contrast to the bird’s eye view provided by the synthetic method, the analytical method offers an ant’s eye view by getting us immersed in the soil of Scripture.
1. God inspired not only the broad themes of Scripture, but all the details as well. Using this method, we will gain an appreciation for the words, nuances, figures of speech, and other particulars of a passage.
2. This method will give us skill in observing and interpreting Scripture as we break it down into its separate components and see how they fit together.
3. Systematic analysis will help us mine the inexhaustible treasures of the Word. We will more clearly see that each time we approach a passage, we can gain new meaning, depth, and insight.
1. Select a passage for study. Note the paragraph divisions in your translation of the Bible--it is best to analyze one paragraph at a time as you go through the text.
2. Carefully read the paragraph several times.
3. Probe each verse of the paragraph in depth by making observations and asking as many of the questions found in “The Process of Bible Study” as you can. Unlike the synthetic method where you asked broad questions of the passage, in the analytical method you should stop to ask questions on the level of words, phrases, and verses. Record your questions because you will need them for the next step.
4. Use the text and context to find the answers to your questions. For some of them (e.g., historical background, chronology, word meanings), you will need to draw upon the recommended Bible study tools.
5. Accumulate principles from each verse by putting on your SPECS.
6. Apply these principles to the eight vital relationships of your life listed in “The Process of Bible Study.
This method is similar to the ask, answer, accumulate, and apply process described above. It has been said that “A wise man will learn more in a walk around the block than a fool will learn on a trip around the world.”
In observation, we ask basic questions of the text, look for key words, phrases, and verses, find connecting words and progressions of thought, and discover contrasts and comparisons. In interpretation, we seek to understand the things we have observed to discern the meaning and purpose that the author had in mind. In correlation, we relate the passage we are studying to the overall context and coordinate it with other sections of Scripture. In application, we derive specific principles from what we have learned and seek to implement them in our lives. See Walter A. Henrichsen’s A Layman’s Guide to Interpreting the Bible for a more detailed description of this method.
This can be a very fruitful method because it helps us discover the development of a theme through the pages of Scripture. Choose a specific topic and decide whether you wish to trace it from Genesis to Revelation or limit yourself to its use in either a section or book of the Bible or a series of selected verses. You may want to chose a theme like sin, redemption, forgiveness, love, or wisdom. Or you may study a concept like speech, the family, stewardship, or work. Use a concordance (Nave’s Topical Bible is also helpful) to find the passages you will work with. Make your observations, ask questions, look for the answers, and then formulate an outline of the topic to organize your key thoughts. Check and supplement your results by using a Bible encyclopedia. Summarize your findings and be sure to end with a set of specific life applications.
A study of the failures and successes of Bible personalities is an excellent way to uncover spiritual principles and discover insights into the way God works in people’s lives. If the person you want to study is a major figure in Scripture, you may want to confine your study to a particular book or a portion of his life. Use a concordance to find the relevant passages. As you work with these verses, create a list of the events in the person’s life and then arrange them in a chronological sequence. Use this list to create a biographical outline with the associated verses. With this outline, move through the character’s life and make a set of observations, interpretations, and applications.
There are a variety of other Bible study methods which could prove useful after you become familiar with those outlined in this booklet. Effective Bible Study by Howard F. Vos, for example, describes seventeen approaches, including the theological, literary, geographical, sociological, political, cultural, and psychological methods.
New King James Version
New American Standard Version
New International Version
New English Translation (NET Bible)
The Open Bible
The Ryrie Study Bible
The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible
Talk Thru the Bible
Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament
Explore the Book
Introduction to the Old Testament
A Survey of Old Testament Introduction
New Testament Introduction
An Introduction to the New Testament
The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
Young’s Analytical Concordance of the Bible
Nave’s Topical Bible
The Bible Almanac
The New Unger’s Bible Handbook
Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible
The Illustrated Bible Dictionary
The New Bible Dictionary
Unger’s Bible Dictionary
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible
Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary
The Bible Knowledge Commentary The New Bible Commentary
The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands
The Macmillan Bible Atlas
Baker’s Bible Atlas
Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament
An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
Dictionary of New Testament Theology
1. What are the six purposes of Bible study?
Think about this list and use it as a motivation builder that will help you overcome the barriers to your own study of God’s Word.
1. What are the six purposes of Bible study?
Think about this list and use it as a motivation builder that will help you overcome the barriers to your own study of God’s Word.
2. What are the six prerequisites of Bible study?
In the spaces at the right, rank these prerequisites from 1 (the prerequisite you have best fulfilled in the past) to 6 (the prerequisite you have least fulfilled in the past).
3. What do you think are the two most important rules of interpretation? ______________________________________________ ______________________________________________
Why did you choose these rules?
4. What are the four A’s in the process of Bible study?
Can these be used in any Bible study method? When do you plan to start putting them into practice?
5. What are the SPECS of Bible study?
Be sure to memorize this list and use them until they become habitual.
6. Memorize the eight vital relationships so that they will come to mind when you seek to apply the biblical principles that surface in your study.
7. The only way to discover the benefits of each of these methods is to put them into practice. Plan to do this by using a different method each month until you have gone through them all. Then select the ones you found most beneficial and formulate a future plan to implement them so that you will enjoy a variety of useful study methods.
8. Consider the possibility of forming or joining a group that studies the Bible together. Bible study is best when it is done individually and corporately, because each person can share the insights he or she learned so that others will benefit from them. This adds the dimension of mutual encouragement, exhortation, and accountability, and enables us to gain perspectives on Scripture we would otherwise have missed (see 1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24-25).
9. Look up these passages that stress the importance of scheduling regular time to study God’s revealed Word: Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; 119:105; John 17:17; 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:22. Try committing two of these verses to memory.
10. Look over this list of recommended Bible study tools and select the first six you would like to have in your library. Try to purchase them over the next six or twelve months. As you do, familiarize yourself with these tools so that you will know how each one can assist you in your study program.