How can we be sure the New Testament writers were giving it to us straight?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: How can we be sure that the New Testament writers were correct in their writings? If I were in a political party, I would say anything so that my party would win the election. If I were a businessman, I would say anything to sell my product. And since blood is thicker than water, I would say or do anything to protect a family member — despite their flaws! The Gospel writers were people like us, under the same pressures and with the same objectives, so how can we know for sure that Gospels give us an accurate picture of Jesus?

Furthermore, if Christian pieces of evidence are solid proofs, then why do so many people — including people like Bart Ehrman — leave the faith? Some even convert into other religions despite our “evidence.” How do I respond to all this?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. This is a very important “type” of question. We Christians are supposed to be “People of the Book.” So if “the Book” is suspect, then Christianity is on shaky ground. But your question has several different questions within it, so be patient with me while I address them one at a time.

Please note, however, that “proofs” do not eliminate the need for faith in a believer. I can build a solid cumulative case that a Christian worldview makes the most sense of all the data — be they biblical, physical or metaphysical — but a skeptic will not see any of these arguments as “solid proof” ... so you might want to adjust your expectations in that regard.

First, I need to challenge your use of the word “many”… as in “many leaving the faith” The issue is that the “many” you identify as people leaving the faith is just one side of the equation. When people like Bart Ehrman — high-profile former believers who hold PhDs, publish books and go on talk shows — leave the faith, we are tempted to count them as more than one person because of their impact. But Ehrman is only one defector... and for every one opting out, there are a thousand opting in. The flow of individuals is decidedly towards Christ, not away from him.

But not only do thousands of people “come” to Christ every day, millions — arguably billions — “stay” in Christ. Can you see what’s happening? People leave the faith regularly — and their numbers accumulate to a point where we may call them “many.” But they are few by percent in relation to the people who come to Christ and the people who stay in Christ. I have no data, but I think that a one-to-a-million ratio would be a conservative guess at the ratio of those who leave the faith to those who come to faith or stay in the faith.

That being said, I hate it when we lose even one soul! (Matthew 18:12). I think we should investigate those “deconversions” and work to prevent them. But I don’t want you to feel like God is losing the numbers war here. He’s not. Although “many” people will be lost, billions will be redeemed (Revelation 7:9). It’s an uncomfortable fact that some people will indeed be lost. But this proves that free will exists — and that God respects it! — and that the universe is a moral place.

Let’s move on to how we can know that the Bible gives an accurate picture of Jesus. There are several extra-biblical references to Jesus. So, if you are determined to throw the Bible out as a valid historical source — and absolutely no credible secular historian does this — we have some other documents that mention Jesus. These give evidence that Jesus existed and some overtly line up with the biblical accounts. I have listed these documents in another question, and I’d rather not copy all the data here. So let me give you a link to that other answer, and you can see these corroborating documents for yourself.

https://mainsailministries.org/index.php/q-a-a-god-bible-theology-culture/199-are-there-any-extra-biblical-documents-that-corroborate-the-historical-jesus.html

You should understand that it is the consensus among all historians — including secular historians — that the disciples found Jesus’ tomb empty… and that subsequently, they were highly motivated to spread Christianity throughout the world — even under the threat of death! Reasonable Faith Ministries has three short videos on this historical evidence, and I recommend that you watch and share them with believers and skeptics alike. Here are their links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSQDov6NNp0&list=PL3gdeV4Rk9EfL-NyraEGXXwSjDNeMaRoX&index=10   
(Who did Jesus think he was?)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qhQRMhUK1o&list=PL3gdeV4Rk9EfL-NyraEGXXwSjDNeMaRoX&index=11 
(Did Jesus rise from the dead? Part 1: the facts)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SbJ4p6WiZE&list=PL3gdeV4Rk9EfL-NyraEGXXwSjDNeMaRoX&index=12 
(Did Jesus rise from the dead? Part 2: the explanation)

Another reason we can believe what the Bible says about anything — including Jesus — is what textual critics call “the embarrassment factor.” If I were to write a document like the one implied by your question — a propaganda piece — it would look nothing like the Bible.

For instance, I wouldn’t have Jesus’ patriarch, Judah, having sex with a prostitute that turned out to be his daughter-in-law (Genesis 38). I wouldn’t have a lying, cheating and stealing pagan women like Rachel in Israel’s gene pool (Genesis 31:19). I wouldn’t have Jesus’ chief disciple saying stupid things (Matthew 16:22) or doing cowardly things (John 18:17). I wouldn’t shine the spotlight on a God who killed his followers for the small sin of lying — just to make a point! (Acts 5:5). I would not air the dirty laundry of a prototypical Gentile church where a man was living as husband-and-wife with his stepmother — and where God’s people thought it was okay (1 Corinthians 5:1).

All these embarrassing accounts — and please understand that there are more than I can reasonably enumerate — would never show up in a propaganda piece! The Bible shows real people, doing real things and getting in real trouble in real-time. It is, therefore — and especially from a textual-critical standpoint — representative of reality… really.

Okay… but what do we do with a guy like Bart Ehrman, a credentialed and highly respected New Testament scholar, who grew up in the evangelical tradition — attending no less of the Christian college than Wheaton (Illinois) … and who — on the way to his doctorate — lost faith in the inerrancy of Scripture… and who became wealthy by selling popular-level books giving reasons why you should not trust the Bible either?

Among other things, you could read Craig Blomberg's response to Ehrman in his book: Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Baker Publishing Group, 2014).

Here we have two scholars (both hold PhDs) who disagree. From my perspective, Craig Blomberg simply cancels Bart Ehrman. Just because Ehrman threw the first punch (and appears on more talk shows... and is, therefore, the darling of Christian-haters everywhere...) this doesn’t mean he’s right. So you may say to the skeptic (as you might say in a poker game), “I see your scholar… and I raise you William Lane Craig” ... or your favorite scholar(s).

When you read a contemporary Bible critic, you should read him in the context of the 2000 years of scholarship that went before him. In the case of Ehrman, his forebears — as in one voice — disagree with him. It amazes me how quick we are to throw the Bible away because a new person has said an old thing — that God doesn’t exist… and that the Bible is just a book written by men. But I can line up scholars all day long who will disagree with that premise. So, if you are not a scholar, how you fight this is to choose a champion that is a scholar... but several will always be better than just one — and let him or they speak for you.

I have answered a few other questions about Bart Ehrman and textual criticism. If you would like to follow up by reading these, find them at the following links:

http://mainsailministries.org/index.php/q-a-a-god-bible-theology-culture/241-is-the-bible-more-reliable-than-the-quran-considering-the-new-testament-s-textual-variants.html

http://mainsailministries.org/index.php/join-the-monday-musings-mailing-list/294-20160815-why-did-bart-ehrman-flee-christianity.html

https://www.mainsailministries.org/index.php/q-a-a-god-bible-theology-culture/290-why-did-bart-ehrman-really-leave-christianity.html

I could go on all day about this, but I’m going to limit myself to just a few more thoughts — the next one sounding odd from a believer — but you should take some weight off the Bible… because the Bible is not God’s only revelation.

Most believers understand that God gave us two revelations; the Bible is his “special” revelation and creation is his “general” revelation. But I have identified seven! The Bible is one — and it’s an important one — but if somebody pulled the rug of biblical inerrancy out from under you (as I suspect someone did to Bart Ehrman) — that would be a setback... but it would not be a disaster. Check these out:

  1. We have written revelation in the Scripture (Psalm 119:105; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16).
  2. We have a salvific revelation in the Gospel (Mark 16:15; John 3:16; Acts 16:31).
  3. We have a living revelation in Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 4:13-14; 1 John 5:11-13).
  4. We have a spiritual revelation in the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 8:14; Revelation 2:7; 22:17).
  5. We have a general revelation in the created universe (Genesis 1:1; Romans 1:18-20; Hebrews 11:3).
  6. We have a philosophical revelation in human intelligence (Isaiah 1:18; Romans 1:20; James 1:5).
  7. We have a moral revelation in human morality (Jeremiah 31:33; Matthew 5:48; Romans 2:14-15).

The idea here is to build a Christian worldview based on all these revelations in combination. If you do that, you will be a hardy Christian… not someone who is going to flee Christ altogether when his understanding of biblical inerrancy is challenged. If someday I lose my belief in biblical inerrancy, I would take one step back and lean on the Bible’s inspiration… or the Gospel… or Christ himself… or the Holy Spirit… or the created universe… or on my self-awareness… or my moral compass. All these combine into a powerful philosophical whole that will help you maintain confidence in your Christian worldview... while you take time to assess the damage.

As a final note, I am a Christian because of the indwelling Holy Spirit — not because of what I think of the Bible. I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the Bible as the inerrant word of God, but that’s not the test of whether or not a person is a Christian: a Christian is someone who is born again (John 3:3) and has the Holy Spirit dwelling within (Romans 8:16). If you are such a person, part of your training is that you will be continually challenged about the individual parts of your faith — and the Bible is just one of those parts.

Thank you again for your question. I pray that these perspectives have helped you more than confused you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200907 Can human writers really produce inerrant Scripture?).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)