Is the Bible Inspired?
By Merle Hertzler
As we have seen, parts of our Bibles are probably mistaken. But what about the original source? I was taught to believe that holy men of God wrote down the Bible as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. Is this what happened? Is the Bible in its essence the words of God?
Now this is a rather extraordinary claim--that a mere book represents the words of God. Can you understand how some would be skeptical about that claim? After all, you yourself are probably skeptical of the claim that the Koran or the Book of Mormon is the word of God. You demand more than a simple assertion. You would like some real evidence. Very well then, it seems to me that, if you want us to believe the Bible is God's inspired word, you need to have a good reason why we should believe it.
So why should we believe that the Bible is God's Word? II Timothy 3:16 comes to mind: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;" So we have a claim here. But a claim is not proof, is it?
I think that II Timothy 3:16 does not count as significant evidence that the Bible is God's word. First, we don't know what books the author is referring to as scripture. He does not tell us. What do you think he refers to? The 66 books of the Protestant Bible? What makes you think he means those books? Unless he defines what he is talking about, how can we know what he thinks is inspired?
Second, the passage has alternate translations. It could mean, "All scripture that is inspired of God is profitable." In other words, it could simply mean that God has had a hand in certain books, and that they are worth reading. It may not even be claiming verbal inspiration or that the books are more inspired than other inspiring reading you might find.
And finally, the author may be mistaken. After all, we don't even know who wrote this book. Oh yes, many will tell me that Paul wrote II Timothy. But could someone else have written it? After all, it was a common practice in those days to write a book and claim that some famous person had written it. The books could have been falsely attributed to Paul. The vocabulary of these books does not match the rest of Paul's writings, but rather, is similar to second century writings.[1 ] This book is never mentioned by the early church fathers, even though other books of Paul are frequently referenced. It appears that this book had not even been written until years after Paul. If you think Paul wrote it, I would like to know your reasons. And even if you could show that Paul wrote it, we could argue that he could have been mistaken. Paul, after all, was human, and humans are sometimes mistaken.
Can you understand why many of us do not think that quoting this verse proves that the 66 books in your Bible are inspired?
The odd thing to me is that no book of the New Testament specifically claims to be inspired (with the possible exception of Revelation.) Let's look at one example. In Romans 1 we read, "Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God... to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints." Now, according to Evangelical thinking, this book is not just expressing Paul's thoughts-- it is expressing the very thoughts of God. But where does the book say this? Imagine that you were in the church of Rome and you received this personal letter from Paul. You would, of course, be thrilled to have a lengthy letter from the great leader of your faith. But would you consider this letter to be the writings of God? You read right there that Paul wrote it. Nowhere does it say that God wrote it. Nowhere does Romans claim that Paul was merely the vehicle that God used to express his thoughts. And we have no record that the recipients thought this book was written by God.
Now look at the end of the book: In Rom 16:22 it says, "I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord." Okay, so perhaps Paul didn't actually do the writing, but he dictated it to a scribe. Imagine the chain of command--God told Paul what to write, Paul told Tertius, and Tertius wrote it down. Isn't it possible that something was lost in transmission? And how did Romans 16:22 get there? Was Paul dictating these words--"And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you... I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord." Can you imagine what Tertius would have said if he was taking dictation and Paul had said "I Tertius"? It's just not natural. So most likely Tertius wrote this verse on his own. Did God switch modes, so that he was now inspiring Tertius instead of Paul? If so, why didn't God just inspire Tertius in the first place, and leave Paul out of the loop? Or did Tertius just inject this verse on his own? If so, how many other verses did Tertius insert? Regardless, we find that Paul takes credit for the book, and Tertius steps in and takes credit for his contribution, but somehow, they didn't think it was important to mention that God was the author. Why would the book give credit to the channel (Paul) and the scribe (Tertius) and fail to mention the author (God)? Does that not seem strange to you? If God wrote this, wouldn't he have taken the credit?
Thus saith the Lord
Oh, but people will tell me that the Old Testament prophets often wrote, "Thus saith the Lord." Does this prove that those verses are quotes from God? I think not. How would we know that the prophets were not just pretending that God said those things? Many prophets were doing that. You can read about them in Jeremiah 23. Jeremiah writes,
These prophets said, "Thus saith the Lord," but Jeremiah says that they were lying. What do you think these other prophets said about Jeremiah? That's right, they probably said that the Lord told them Jeremiah was lying. So who was right? Do you see that merely claiming that God says something does not prove that the writer is correct?
To convince a skeptic that he is wrong, you will need to do more then state that you are right and he is wrong. You will need evidence. What evidence do you have that the Bible is inspired? Many Christian have proposed evidence, including claimed prophetic fulfillment, miraculous biblical unity, and the Bible's life-changing power. Do these things prove that the book is inspired? We are here to ask questions. Let's ask.
One of the most frequently used arguments for the Bible's inspiration is fulfilled prophecy. We are told that the writers miraculously predicted many things years before they happened. Let us look at some proposed examples.
One of the most famous is Micah 5:2, "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity." We are told that this verse predicted that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. But does it say that? First, look at whom this verse is talking about. Look at the context. We find more about this ruler in verses 5 and 6,
Micah wrote during the time of Assyrian dominance, and writes of somebody who will conquer Assyria. Does this sound like a description of Jesus? Did Jesus deliver "from the Assyrian?" No? So apparently the man spoken of in Micah 5--the one that was to come out of Bethlehem and defeat Assryia-- is not even Jesus.
Some might argue that this verse could be taken figuratively, that Jesus symbolically defeated the Assyrian tyranny. But how many other people could be said to have figurative conquered Assyrian tyranny? Churchill, Washington, and Martin Luther King come to mind. In fact, thousands of people can be said to have figuratively conquered Assyria. So how can you be sure this is talking about Jesus? And if the conquest of Assryia is not to be taken literally, how do we know that "Bethlehem" is to be taken literally? If we are allowed to use figurative interpretations, hundreds of town might figurative be Bethlehem, the city of David.
There is a second problem. The verse is probably not even referring to the town of Bethlehem, but to a man named Bethlehem, the descendent of Ephratah. I Chron 4:4 speaks of this man, "These were the sons of Hur, the first-born of Ephrathah and father of Bethlehem." Now the "prophecy" in Micah refers to Bethlehem Ephratah. Sounds like Micah is describing a descendant of Bethlehem Ephratah, not a citizen of a town.
Third, how do we even know where Jesus was born? Sure, Matthew and Luke said he was born in Bethlehem, but could they have been mistaken? Or could the books have been altered to make it look like Jesus was born in Bethlehem? It is no use arguing that the gospels are correct because they are inspired. That is the point we are trying to determine. Unless we can prove they are inspired, we cannot simply assume the issue under consideration. That would be arguing in a circle. So the books could possibly be wrong on this point. And, other than these two books--which conflict on the details--we have no record of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. So maybe the writers made this up so they could show a fulfillment of prophecy as they understood it. Once more, we have reason to be less than impressed with this prophecy.
So I don't find Micah 5:2 to be an impressive prophecy about Jesus.
How about Isaiah 53? This tells about a suffering servant. Many think it predicts Jesus. Again let's look at the passage in context. Notice the language.
It seems to be talking about somebody in the past, that is, before Isaiah. "He was despised...was wounded...was bruised."
The theme of the suffering servant appears throughout Isaiah 40 through 55. The suffering servant seems to be talking about the nation of Israel. For instance in Isaiah 44:1-2 :
now listen, O Jacob, My
So we find that Jacob (Israel) is referred to as a servant. This theme is repeated throughout the later part of Isaiah. The passage could be telling us nothing more than that Israel suffered for the sins of the people. This passage could have nothing to do with a future savior. Perhaps Isaiah was not even writing a prophecy.
Alternatively, the passage could simply be about a scapegoat for sin. Such stories were quite common in ancient literature, with animals, men, or gods serving as a sacrifice to appease a god. Is every one of those references a prophecy? Is every book that speaks of a bodily sacrifice the inspired Word of God? Of course not. Else, there would be hundreds of conflicting pagan accounts that would all be inspired by God. Do you see how speaking of a scapegoat does not prove that the passage is God's Word?
Do you think the prophecies of the Bible are impressive? May I suggest a way to check them out for yourself? Start at the Psalms and read through to the end of the prophets. Lay aside the commentaries and chapter headings. Every time you see something that might be a prophecy of Christ, ask yourself if this is really prophesying a future event. Is the prophecy so vague it really predicts nothing? Is it talking about a contemporaneous event, and not even talking about the future? Is the reference so cryptic that it takes a specially trained eye to pick it out of context? Would God hide things like that? Read it from the perspective of a person who has never heard of Jesus. Would he be expected from these verses to know that some particular event would happen in the life of Jesus? I think you will find that the claimed prophecies melt away when you do this.
I remember the first time I read the book of Isaiah. I was excited to read all of those marvelous prophecies in context. What a surprise it was to read what was actually in the book. The "prophecies" come rather unexpectedly, in passages that are totally unrelated to Jesus. And most of the book consists of long diatribes about ancient affairs that mean little to modern people. I am not making this up. You can see it for yourself if you will simply pick the Bible off the shelf and read the book of Isaiah, I think you will see what I am talking about.
Let's look at one more prophecy claim before we move on. In Zechariah 11:12-13 we read
Now this has been claimed to be a marvelous prophecy of the fee paid to Judas. If this is a prophecy then God has hidden it well. We find it is again written in the past tense. It tells the story of a good shepherd who was discouraged trying to lead Israel. Having given up, he asks for his wages and throws the money to the potter. Now in what way does this represent Judas? The story simply doesn't match. Now if Judas happened to receive the same wage as the man in the story, well that is a coincidence, but how is that a prophecy? You see, if one tries to find little matches between any two stories, one can usually do it. But that does not prove that the first story prophesied the second. (See, for instance, the "startling discovery" made by a rabbi in the sidebar.)
Even if a story in the New Testament has parallels to something in the Old Testament that does not prove the Old Testament was prophetic. Isn't it possible that the writers of the New Testament slanted the story to make it match what they read in the Old Testament? It is no use claiming that the New Testament is right because it is inspired. That is the point in question. You cannot prove the Bible is inspired by assuming it is inspired. So, if fallible men wrote the gospels, maybe their bias influenced how they told the story. In many places the New Testament says something happened "that it might be fulfilled" and then it references some passage in the Old Testament. So, if the writer knew about the Old Testament passage, and wanted to show a fulfillment, isn't it possible that he slanted the story? It turns out that the only sources we have for any of the details that are claimed to be fulfillment of messianic prophecy are the New Testament writers themselves. Do you understand how some people might think those writers were biased? So we have no clearly unbiased sources verifying the 30 pieces of silver, the birth in Bethlehem, the virgin birth, or any of the other claimed fulfillment. Once more, those who claim miraculous fulfillment have little support.
Even if you would find an impressive prophecy, does that prove that all 66 books of the Bible are inspired? Suppose you find an impressive prophecy by Nostradamus. Would that prove that all books in a collection that includes his book are inspired of God? Of course not. Would it prove that the book that the prophecy is written in is God-inspired? I doubt if you would conclude that. So even if you do find an impressive messianic prophecy-- I have not yet found one-- you are far from proving that all 66 books of the Protestant Bible are inspired by God.
Others have tried to claim that the Bible must be inspired since, in their opinion, the Bible has a tremendous unity of theme. They say that 40 authors wrote over a period of 1500 years and yet they put together a completely unified book. But is this true? How can the Old Testament writers spend many chapters listing genealogies, while Titus 3:9 states that genealogies are unprofitable and worthless? Are Paul and Moses working in unity? Are they teaching the same gospel? Or how can Matthew and Luke record the life of Christ without recording any instance of Jesus telling us that we need to believe in him to have eternal life, whereas John says that Jesus repeatedly said that? Are they presenting the same message? Why do we find the constant emphasis in the Old Testament on the Jewish nation, only to find out in the New Testament that there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles? Is this a perfect work of harmony?
You will have a hard time convincing skeptics that this is a miraculous work of unity. So the argument from unity is not a good argument for evangelists to use with informed people.
Others point to the power of the book to change lives. That may be. But other books have had a powerful influence on people also. Does the influence of the book prove that God wrote it? I think not.
Others will tell me that it is amazing that the Bible survived history. But how does that prove inspiration? Is that not rather tribute to the fanaticism with which many accepted this book?
So I find that the arguments from prophecy, unity, and power are not very convincing.
Should I Just Have Faith?
You may tell me that we will never prove the Bible is inspired, so we should just take it by faith. So what should I say when my Catholic friends tell me to take it by faith that they are right? What should I say when the Mormons say to take the Book of Mormon by faith? What about the robed man at the airport that wants me to have faith in his way? It seems to me that I should ask them the same question that I ask here: Do you have convincing evidence that your source is an accurate record of God's thoughts? I need a reason.
You want me to take it by faith--should I have faith in every verse? What about Leviticus 11:21-22? It tells me that grasshoppers walk on four legs. Should I try to have faith that this is true? How can I do that? Grasshoppers, like all insects, have six legs. I could try to have faith that grasshoppers have four legs as this verse says. But I have a scientific mind. And I can't help but count the grasshopper's legs. And my faith gets weak the moment the count reaches five.
1. Kirby, Peter, I Timothy
CopyrightÓ Merle Hertzler 2002, 2005. All rights reserved.