If we try to prove that the Bible is the word of God by looking at its own claims, this is a circular argument. Anything can claim to be sent from God, but this is not proof that it is. In addition, if we are sure that one book, or even one chapter is from God, how can we know that the rest is divinely inspired too?
The question we are seeking to answer is where the word has come from. Is it possible that these words could have come from a collection of human minds?
Written works reflect the minds of their author; they reveal how the author thinks and their world view. As men our characters are shown in the things we create. For example, we often make mistakes or have a distorted view of the world. This can be seen in the works written by men – they contain errors and contradictions. This problem becomes magnified when many men come together to write something.
Unlike men, God is infallible (Hebrews 6:18) and omnipotent. (Psalm 147:5, Isaiah 14:27, 43:13) His greatness is uncountable (Psalm 145:3, 1 Chron 29:11). His ways are far above man’s ways (Isa 55:9) If this is what God is like, we should expect His word to be like this too. If the bible is the word of God, it should:
- Be true and contain no errors or contradictions.
- Contain depth and complexity in a way that is impossible for humans to replicate.
1. Does the Bible contain errors?
To prove that a text contains errors is simple – all we need to do is find one and the whole argument collapses. On the other hand it’s not possible to prove that it doesn’t contain any errors; no matter how much we search for an error, there may still be one that we haven’t found. However, by searching for an error and failing to find one we can build confidence in the truth of the word.
People sometimes cite examples of contradictions in the Bible. These can arise due to the complexity and richness of the text itself – the author is making a deeper point only exposed when the word is thoroughly searched. The word is written in this way – that its riches are only really revealed to those willing to work and search them out. After searching we find that what may have seemed to be a contradiction is in fact a rich and beautiful point being drawn out, and for which God encourages us to search. For some worked examples see the book “Wrested Scriptures”.
When we are able to resolve apparent errors and contradictions in the word we uncover the deeper truths it contains. As our understanding grows so does our confidence in the truth and flawlessness of God’s word.
Errors of transmission
Another apparent source of errors are those of transmission. Generally in the English speaking world the “Bible” is taken to mean an English translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts. By its very nature, translations are prone to error because they require an extensive knowledge of how language is used in the Bible, and an understanding of difficult things. This can result in the reader being misled by the translator.
Underneath the translation are the manuscripts themselves. Those that have been preserved are copies of earlier manuscripts, created by human copyists performing a task that is onerous and error prone. Many small errors have been found in antiquity, and corrective notes added to the manuscript tradition, but in some cases there is uncertainty about how (or whether) the text should be corrected. Some copyists deliberately made more extensive changes to the text, which can often be identified and explained by reference to other manuscript copies – e.g.1 John 5:7, but in some cases there is insufficient manuscript evidence available today to be certain.
Remarkably, despite the frailty of ancient manuscripts as a medium for preserving God’s word, and the unreliability of the human copying process through the ages, the Bible’s teaching is consistent, coherent and profound. This is exactly what we would expect from an author who knows the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge has also enabled Him to ensure that what has been preserved is sufficient for us to understand the purpose He has with us today.
2. Would it be possible for men to write the bible?
As with any written work, the Bible will reflect the mind of its creator. To accept the Bible’s own explanation for its origins (see “The Bible as Truth” section), we need to test it against its own claims. Can we see the God described in the Bible reflected in its pages?
We should expect more than just a lack of errors. One claim God makes about Himself is that he knows the future (Isaiah 46:10). He has given us prophecies to help us test His claim. God gave Israel a way to determine whether the words that prophets spoke were from Him. There are two tests:
- The words that the prophet speaks must come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
- The prophet must not tell you to go after other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
We can and should apply this same test to the Bible:
- Do the prophecies in the Bible come true?
- Do the words of the Bible all agree together and direct us to follow the same God?
It is outside the scope of this article to provide a thorough answer to these questions, it is a lifetime’s work. We can, though, consider some examples to demonstrate the process.
Daniel 2 contains a vision of the future given to Nebuchadnezzar which contains details which would have been impossible for Daniel to know. Therefore we must conclude that either:
A. These details were added at a later point
B. The details are sufficiently vague to support multiple interpretations, so that no matter what events occurred the vision could still be said to be true
C. The prophecy was a lucky guess
D. The prophecy was made by someone who had knowledge of the future.
Jesus quotes the book of Daniel (Matthew 24:15), and yet some parts of the vision relate to events that happened after the life of Jesus. The book of Daniel must therefore have been written before these events, which rules out option A. (It is possible to argue that some of the details in Daniel 2 were changed/added at a later date, see “When the Old Testament books were written” to see why this is not the case).
We know from 2 Peter 1:20 that there is only one way to understand a prophecy (see “Inspiration and Interpretation”). Therefore details given in a particular prophecy cannot be described as vague or open to multiple interpretations, which makes their accuracy all the more remarkable. This rules out option B.
If you make enough predictions some of them are certain to come true. The Bible contains hundreds of prophecies. The fulfillment of one, or two could simply be good luck. If they all come to pass, this makes it very unlikely to be a lucky guess. It is therefore necessary to consider a number of different prophecies in order to rule out option C. There are many books on this subject. It is left to the reader to establish this claim for themselves.
This only leaves option D; this prophecy must be from someone who had knowledge of the future. The more we appreciate the sheer number of prophecies in the Bible and the level of detail they contain the harder it becomes difficult to dismiss them as the work of man’s hands. Instead we realise that these words are miracles, created by a mind which knows more about the world than we are able to.
If we accept that these prophecies could not have been written by humans, we must find an alternative explanation. The evidence of prophecy points to a writer who is able to know the future before it happens. What else can we discover about the mind behind the Bible from looking at how it is written?
How do we know God wrote all of the bible?
Put another way, how do we define the canon of scripture?
Prophecy can be helpful in demonstrating the miraculous nature of some parts of the Bible, but the word is made up of many separate books; written by different people over thousands of years in three different languages. Not all books contain fulfilled prophecy and their inclusion in a book we call the Bible doesn’t necessarily give them the same authority. We need another way to be sure that these writings are also special.
If God wrote these words we should expect them to reflect His nature. We should expect more than just a lack of errors. We should expect the depth and greatness of His mind to be reflected in the words. In the same way that we cannot “prove” a lack of errors, we cannot “prove” a depth and complexity to the word with a few examples. This kind of evidence requires time and patience to consider. One of our primary aims of searching God’s word should be to try to discover its depths. The more we do this, the deeper we will discover God’s word to be. This is not simply a lack of error, it’s a rich and vast network of connections in the language, themes and patterns of scripture. The deeper you go, the more you find. The words of man are not like this – under scrutiny they break down and things no longer hold together.
For the Bible to be like this is made even more remarkable because of the way it has been written. It is the work of many different hands over thousands of years. For each part to work together with the others in order to create a cohesive document which reveals the plan and purpose of God is a miracle.
Coming to this conclusion requires work and effort. It’s not a simple mathematical proof, but rather a weighing of many small details over time, which gradually build up to a realisation of the depth of the scriptures and their miraculous nature.
This approach can also help us with errors of transmission (see part 1); where two manuscripts might have different meanings, a deeper appreciation of the message of the text and how it connects to other parts of the scriptures can help us identify the correct variation. It is God’s prerogative to alter the tense or the words He previously inspired, to add depth and beauty to His truth, e.g. Psalm 8:2 in Matthew 21:16.
Establishing that the Bible is more complex than it would be possible for a human mind to create helps us to draw boundaries around what we consider to be from God vs what is a human addition. Beyond this, it also enables us to understand the mind of the Creator showing Him to be abundant in truth (Exodus 34:6) and reflecting His other characteristics too.
We should consider the limitations of our own human perception. These limits make it difficult for us to be objective. We have emotions and unconscious bias which will inevitably influence our attempts to understand the Bible. While we cannot remove these limitations entirely, we must try our best to overcome our emotions and uncover our bias. This will help us to answer these questions (2 Timothy 2:15).