Several churches in our community have been working through Explore God, a series of questions that seek to spark conversations about God. This past week’s question has been: “Is the Bible Reliable?” Lurking behind this question is often a different question, “Should we really take the Bible literally?”
My typical response is to ask a person, “What do you mean by literally?” Often, to take something “literally” means to read something in a very “plain” sense way. But “plain” according to whom?
Often the pushback I get is that the Bible is simply just a matter of one’s own interpretation. “That is just your interpretation, so why should I believe what you think about the Bible?”
Here is the problem with that: It concedes the point that getting at the “plain” sense of the Bible is at least sometimes easier said than done. But it does not follow that Bible interpretation is always simply up for grabs, and therefore the Bible is necessarily unreliable.
What we need to be able to do is to understand the original context in which a particular text was written. It is the purpose and meaning that the original author had in mind, and not our own context, that should govern the interpretation of the Bible. As a result, the possibilities of how to interpret a text are necessarily limited to a certain range of potential meanings: a singular sense for a very clear text, and multiple senses for a difficult text. But with hard work and study, we can come to even a much clearer understanding of the most difficult texts.
Here is a good example of a difficult text, that cause some people to question the reliability of the Bible:
- For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 ESV).
Here Jesus is drawing upon the story of Jonah and the great fish to explain His future crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. A plain, supposedly “literal” reading of the text reveals a problem. If you take “three days and three nights” in a “plain” sense, it gives you 72 hours. But the standard understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that He died on Good Friday and then rose on Sunday, about a 36 hour time period. Measured in hours, that timing is way off!
Well, there you go. The Bible is wrong here, and therefore is unreliable, and can not be trusted…. But is that a correct interpretation?
Now, there are folks who go to great lengths to show that the traditional interpretation of Jesus dying on Friday has been miscalculated by the church. Some contend that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. Others contend that Jesus was crucified on Thursday. Sure, you can pull all sorts of evidence together to try to support one of these alternative views, to make the “three days and three nights” work, as a way to defend and prove that the Bible is “literally true.”
But what if you are not convinced?
There is a much simpler solution to consider: Some scholars, like Andreas Köstenberger, suggest that we have evidence to demonstrate that the phrase “three days and three nights” is actually an old Semitic idiomatic expression, that is simply unfamiliar to modern English readers. Any portion of a 24-hour period of time could constitute “a day and a night.” So if Jesus died on a Friday and then rose from the grave on Sunday, that would give you “three days and three nights:” part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. Just because this idiom would be unusual to us does not rule out the possibility that Jesus and/or the biblical writers would have known about such idioms, or metaphors, and used them freely in the Bible.
In other words, when the original Scriptural writer employed so-called “literal” language to describe something, without metaphor or embellishment, we today should cling to interpreting the Bible in the same manner. But when the writer does intentionally use metaphorical or figurative language, to express God’s truth in Scripture, we should cling to interpreting the Bible, again, in the same manner, as in the original.
So, to say that “the Bible is reliable,” is not just a pious excuse for appealing to one’s own interpretation of the Bible. We can appeal to the evidence to build a strong case that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is indeed reliable…. and therefore, trustworthy.
Some say that the Bible is unreliable, because they argue that the copying process of the New Testament had so many errors, that we really do not know what the original New Testament even said! The following clip from the documentary “Fragments of Truth,” shows that such claims are wildly exaggerated, as one learns the story of one famous, 3rd century New Testament fragment, P45, which was discovered in Egypt, and currently now on display in Dublin, Ireland (Go here for a critical, yet fair review of the documentary).
Dr. Bill Mounce, a leading English Bible translator, for the ESV and NIV, makes the point that many people, including many Christians, misuse the word “literal” when it comes to describing Bible translations (see the following 7-minute video). For an in-depth look at what Dr. Mounce is saying, listen to this talk he gave recently at Liberty University (you will need to adjust your audio level).
The Gospel Coalition has a bunch of interesting videos that explore this common objection, “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Don Carson, Al Mohler, Robert Smith Jr., Ligon Duncan, and a panel discussion, with Russell Moore, Mika Edmondson, and Ligon Duncan).