Why believe the Bible?
Dr. Jim Denison
The question came from nowhere. I was leading a youth Bible study one Wednesday night when a high school freshman asked me, “How do you know the Bible came from God?” The look in his eyes showed how serious he was. His father was a Sunday school teacher and leader in our church, but that wasn’t good enough. Nor should it have been.
He wanted to know for himself. He explained his question: “Did the Bible just drop out of heaven? How do you know that someone didn’t just sit down a hundred years ago and write the whole thing? Where did it come from?”
That’s a good question. A few days later at work, a friend and I got into a discussion about my faith and he asked, “Why do you trust the Bible? After all those centuries of copying, surely you don’t think you have what was first written. How can you trust it today?” Another good question.
Maybe you’ve asked questions like these yourself, or you’ve tried to answer them for someone else. The fact is, not many Christians know where the Bible came from. The making of God’s word is a neglected subject for many, and a real problem for others. So it’s important that we learn how God’s word came to us, and why we should trust it today.
In a world which considers “truth” to be personal and subjective, “the Bible says” is seldom definitive proof that our beliefs are right. Many consider the Bible to be outdated and irrelevant. Some reading this essay today may wonder why you should treat the Bible as your life authority, not just your Sunday religion. And we all know someone with such a faith issue.
Where did the Bible come from? Why should we believe it to be God’s word?
Writing in ancient times
The first step to making the Bible seems obvious: God’s word was preserved in writing. However, there’s much more to this first step than you might think. In the ancient world writing was an expensive, laborious process. Books had to be written and copied by hand (the first printed book was completed until around AD 1455). The postal systems of the Roman Empire generally were restricted to government use, so the biblical authors had to find special travelers or messengers to carry their writings. Everything about ancient books was different from today, from their languages to the ways they were produced.
What materials were used by the first biblical authors? Paul gives us a clue. The apostle was locked away in a cold, damp Roman prison. When he wrote to Timothy, his young apprentice, he could have asked for anything. Better food, more companions, lawyers to plead his case, the church to rally to his defense. Instead, here is his personal appeal: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). What were his “scrolls” and “parchments”? Why did they matter so much to history’s greatest apostle?
The materials of the Bible
Scrolls were made of papyrus, the most prevalent “paper” in the ancient world. As we noted in the introduction, the papyrus reed grew along the Nile River in Egypt and in other marshy places. It was cut, unrolled, and left to dry in the sun. Strips were laid horizontally, then others overlaid vertically. They were woven and glued together, constituting the most common and inexpensive writing material of the day. These sheets were then sewn or glued together into scrolls.
A more expensive and durable writing material was parchment, named for the region of Pergamum in Asia Minor (modern-day western Turkey) where it was developed. This was manufactured from animal skins, usually sheep or goats (vellum). Parchment was perfected around 200 B.C., but was too heavy and expensive for common use. Like papyrus, it was often rolled into scrolls.
Reeds were used as brushes, with a kind of carbon-liquid glue as ink. Such pen and ink was employed with papyrus and parchment.
The original books of the Bible were apparently all written on papyrus. Since this first “paper” decayed quickly, none of these original writings exist today. The same is true for the writings of Plato, Aristotle, or Julius Caesar. We simply don’t have the originals of ancient books, but must rely on copies made through the centuries.
Around A.D. 100, people began cutting scrolls into sheets and stitching them together. The result was the “codex,” the ancestor to our “book.” Codexes using parchment are the earliest copies of the complete New Testament which we have today.
The scrolls and parchments Paul requested were his Bible and his books. They were the earliest form of the Scriptures we cherish and study today. If you were locked away on death row, would they be your first request?
The languages of the Bible
God’s word has come to us in three original languages. Hebrew is the oldest of the three, the language used for most of the Old Testament. It is written from right to left, with no upper or lower cases or vowels. Centuries later, scribes added the vowels (called “points”) we have in the Hebrew Bible today.
Aramaic was a descendent of Hebrew. It was the common spoken language of the Jews toward the end of the Old Testament era, and was the typical language of Jesus’ culture. It is found in the Old Testament in Ezra 4:8-6:18, where the author draws on documents exchanged by the Persian king and his subjects; 7:12-26, recording a letter from the Persian king to Ezra; and Daniel 2:4-7:28, where the narrative deals with subjects important to Gentiles and was thus written in their language.
Jesus and his disciples could read Hebrew. For instance, Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll, written in Hebrew, before preaching at Nazareth (Luke 4:17-19). However, they typically spoke in Aramaic. We still find Aramaic words in the Gospels—“Abba” for Father (Mark 14:36), and “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”, Mark 15:34), for instance.