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Why I Trust the Bible: Bible Translator Bill Mounce Answers Real Questions and Doubts

Were the Gospels written by anonymous people who had no direct contact with early eyewitnesses to Jesus of Nazareth?

.… Part of an on-going series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

How Do You Answer Critics, Who Try to Use “Historical Criticism,” to Attack the Message of the Bible? 

Dr. Bill Mounce, who has served on the translation committee for the New International Version of the Bible, and as the New Testament Chairperson for the English Standard Version of the Bible, has heard of claims like these before. Critical scholars, most notably represented by those like University of North Carolina professor, Bart Ehrman, argue that the writers of the four Gospels were written by sophisticated Greek-speakers, who lived in a very different world from Jesus’ original followers, made up of mostly illiterate persons, like Peter the fisherman, who primarily spoke Aramaic, and only very little Greek. We have no real idea who exactly wrote the Gospels, though they were probably composed as completed works as late as the 2nd century, and therefore, the historical information presented in them can not be entirely trusted as being accurate about Jesus.

As with any scholarly claim like this, there are elements of truth here. Yes, the four Gospels we have probably did not originally have the names of their authors embedded in the text. Titles like, “the Gospel according to Mark,” were added to the text by the late 2nd century. Yes, Jesus’ original hearers primarily spoke and understood Aramaic, while all four Gospels are written in elegant Greek.

But as Dr. Mounce writes in his Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, the idea that it was really Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote their respective Gospels, was the unanimous consensus by the mid-2nd century. If the Gospels were truly anonymous, we would have heard of other possible author names being put forward as alternatives. But we do not see any contested argument regarding the names of authors in the historical record. In the ancient world, where we had no mass communication systems, made available by today’s technologies like the Internet, the traditional names of the Gospel writers consistently flourished throughout the geographically vast area of the Roman empire.

Contrast this with the disputes over who wrote the Book of Hebrews, the only New Testament book that lacks a particular claim to a particular author. Tertullian argued that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Other early church fathers suggest Clement of Rome, or Luke. Eusebius believed it was Paul. Some even say Priscilla wrote it. Origen concluded, “In truth only God knows.”

In the case of Mark’s Gospel, we do have good evidence that Mark was indeed the author. Though the writings have not directly survived, Eusebius tells us of the church father and writer Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, until about 130 CE, who was a disciple of John. Papias in these lost writings had written that Mark had become Peter’s interpreter. Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria attests to Peter being in Rome, preaching in perhaps the 60s, of the first century. This would indicate that Mark probably wrote his Gospel, based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, as derived from sermons that Peter gave in Rome, prior to Peter’s martyrdom.

When Doubts Arise: Having a Reliable Guide to Answer Informed Critics

Bill Mounce givens seasoned, evidence-grounded answers, like the one above, to the type of doubts and questions raised by critics of the Bible today, in Why I Trust the Bible. Dr. Mounce makes judicious use of the insights gained by the “historical criticism” of the Bible, that enhance our understanding of the Scriptural text, rather than undermining it. Mounce’s audience is directed at ordinary Christian believers, who find themselves overwhelmed by the popular claims of skeptics, who are looking for reasoned explanations, that are readily accessible, and that do not descend into the overly technical. For those looking for more academic treatments of these topics, Mounce footnotes his references for those who want to dive deeper into these type of discussions.

I was particularly impressed with Dr. Mounce’s chapters on textual criticism, answering both the criticisms against New Testament itself popularly expressed by the famous atheist/agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, as well as the King James Only-movement on the other side of the debate. Those few chapters alone are worth the price of the book, written at a level that most people should be able to understand, that covers all of the important questions that are typically raised on this topic.

I can quibble with Dr. Mounce on a few points here and there throughout the book. For example, Dr. Mounce’s claim that the “had formed” for the animals’ creation in Genesis 2:19, as found in the ESV and NIV translations, does not carry a sense of temporal sequence, has been criticized by other scholars as a form of cheating when it comes to certain Bible translations (see page 257). But such complaints are minor, as set within the context of the whole of Dr. Mounce’s excellent work.

All in all, Why I Trust the Bible is probably one of the best resources available, that critique some of the more extreme conclusions made within the “historical criticism” movement, regarding the Bible. From questions about the canon of Scripture to the latest intellectual fad of “Jesus Mythicism,” Bill Mounce hits nearly every major topic that skeptics will bring up about the Bible. That being said, this may not be the right book to give to a knowledgeable non-believer, who devours every book that Bart Ehrman publishes. Dr. Mounce pretty much assumes that his audience are either Christians, or those who are genuinely seeking information about the Bible. There are lots of great books now about the existence of God, how science and faith relate to one another, and social justice issues concerning Christianity, but if I had to pick just one book that specifically looks at the trustworthiness of the Bible, Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible stands near the top of the list.

One Serious Gripe

If I had one serious complaint to make about Why I Trust the Bible it would be that the book is too short. Why I Trust the Bible could have explored certain issues at a greater length and depth, but the author chose not to. Dr. Mounce’s book clocks in at around 280 pages, whereas British Anglican liberal scholar John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, ( reviewed earlier in this blog post series on Veracity ), and endorsed by Bart Ehrman, clocks in at a hefty and whopping 635 pages. Both books are written for a popular audience, and easily digestible. Both books address overlapping material. Both Dr. Mounce and Dr. Barton are world-class scholars. But in spite of the length of Barton’s A History of the Bible, that might easily scare off some readers, Barton’s book outsells Dr. Mounce’s shorter Why I Trust the Bible, and most likely, will continue to outsell it.

I wonder if the topic of “historical criticism” of the Bible is avoided by church-going believers, because they are afraid with what they might find there. Thankfully, Bill Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible does not exploit such fears, as it actually does the exact opposite. But perhaps the popularity of John Barton’s A History of the Bible exploits the growing skeptical reading audience’s desire for more material to challenge historic, orthodox Christianity.

While conservative evangelical book publishing has continued to improve tremendously over the past few decades, substantial volumes geared towards the general public have languished when compared to similar texts produced by progressive Christian and non-believing scholars. Back when I was in seminary in the 1990s, I remember being mesmerized by books written by the progressive Bible scholar, Elaine Pagels, available at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, while being frustrated by the lack of alternative volumes written by otherwise equally competent conservative evangelical scholars, on similar topics, altogether absent from those Barnes and Noble bookshelves. Elaine Pagels was introducing me to a whole new world of “historical criticism,” but the evangelical churches I knew of in those days, addressed such topics with crickets!!

Is this the fault of evangelical book publishers, or the book reading market that tends to shy away from lengthy books of this type? I do not know that answer here. But what I do know is that we need more substantial books, along the lines of Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, that help to counter a growing skepticism in an increasingly secularized world.

 

In closing out this book review, I am leaving a whole list of teasers that might inspire you to go out and buy the book. Thankfully, Dr. Mounce has released a set of short videos, most of them clocking in at well under 5-minutes, that give you a summary of each chapter, plus a few extra videos that dive a little deeper into more complex topics. Here is the link to the entire YouTube playlist, but right below is the first video in the list, and I have hyperlinked to the other videos in the playlist, just below that. This is great stuff for your own personal discipleship journey, and might even be useful in a small group setting. Enjoy!! 

 

Chapter 1: Did Jesus really exist? Who was the Jesus of history?

Chapter 2: Who wrote the Gospels?

Chapter 3: Are there really contradictions in the Bible?

Chapter 4: What about “discrepancies” in the Bible that really, really look like contradictions?

Chapter 5: Why do we have 27 books in the New Testament?

Chapter 6: When was the New Testament canon closed? What was the role of the church?

Chapter 7: Are the original Greek texts for the New Testament hopelessly corrupt?

Chapter 8: How were the ancient New Testament manuscripts copied down through the generations?

Chapter 9: How does Dr. Bill Mounce interact with the claims of Dr. Bart Ehrman?

Chapter 10: There are so many Bible translations! Which ones can you trust?

Chapter 11: What are different philosophies behind Bible translations?

Chapter 12: Can I trust the character of God given to us in the Old Testament?

Chapter 13: Can we trust the historicity of the Old Testament?

Conclusion: Why does Dr. Mounce trust the Bible, and why should I?

What is “Jesus Mythicism?”

Does the Bible adequately show that Jesus really existed?

How accurate are the Gospels, if they were written down at least 20-25 years after Jesus lived on earth?

How good were the memories of the Gospel writers?

A tough apparent contradiction: Staff, or no staff?

Staff, or no staff? A shorter summary.

How many times did Peter deny Jesus?

Does the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew contradict the genealogy in Luke?


2020 Updates for English Bible Translations

Newcomers to the English Bible often lament the seemingly never-ending proliferation of Bible translations: Which one do I pick? Long gone are the days when the King James Version of the Bible ruled them all!

The past ten years have seen a particular spurt of growth of newer English Bible translations. The late 20th century classic, the New International Version (NIV) 1984, got a major facelift in 2011. The English Standard Version (ESV) got its last update in 2016.

But while the well-known NIV and ESV battle it out over which one is more popular, other English translations have emerged. The New English Translation (NET) Bible, known for its extensive footnotes, and all available online, got a major revision in 2019. The Holman Christian Standard Bible was replaced by the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), in 2017.

Bible translations. How many do we really need?

Just when you thought we would be worn out by all of these new translations and updates, we learn in 2020 of yet another round of updates.  First, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) got a minor revision of updates, of less than 1% of the text, in early 2020. The CSB project was driven a lot by Dr. Thomas Schreiner, of Southern Baptist Seminary. Dr. Schreiner was once a graduate student of Dr. Donald Hagner, at Fuller Seminary. Hagner was my primary New Testament professor, when I went to Fuller. An interview with Dr. Schreiner, about the CSB, can be found here on YouTube. The CSB committee suggests that the small update this year will be the last one, for perhaps the next 10 years. Find out all about it here. A downloadable PDF of the changes can be found here.

Secondly, the venerable New American Standard Bible (NASB), developed by the Lockman Foundation, first published in 1971, was last updated in 1995. A new update for 2020 is expected to hit the printers by early 2021. But you can see a preview of the changes on Facebook.

Finally, we learn that Southern California pastor John MacArthur is planning on yet another revision of the NASB, to be called the Legacy Standard Bible. The impetus behind the Legacy Standard Bible is to provide an “accurate” translation, based on the latest advances in the study of ancient Bible manuscripts, while shying away from some current interpretive trends in certain modern translations.

Here is my take: The positive side of having all of these Bible translations is that it helps to compare different nuances in how English words and phrases can be used to translate the original Hebrew and Greek. All of the major translations available today are very good (only a handful, like the Passion Translation, generally should be avoided). That is why I make regular use of websites like BibleGateway.com, where you can compare different Bible translations, side-by-side, as part of my devotional and study reading, in addition to normally reading from my English Standard Version (ESV) study Bible.

But sometimes we can go too far. The downside to having so many Bible translations available, the situation will continue to lead towards more tribalism in English-speaking Christianity. Different Bible translations, with different perspectives, will compete for different readerships in mind, and individual believers and churches will find themselves gravitating towards one silo, or another, thereby undermining widespread trust across multiple segments of evangelicalism, a case that Bible scholar Mark Ward strongly made most recently.

In other words, the plethora of Bible translations will thrill the Bible nerd, like me, but it will surely frustrate and confuse the average Christian, for whom a regular pattern of Bible reading and study can be a struggle…. and it is simply better to have in mind the plumbers, Soccer moms, and restaurant table waiters, than in trying to cater to the Bible nerds.


Why Keep the King James Version? (… Or Why the “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” Are More Important Than You Think)

I am a big advocate for modern English Bible translations. However, even though I am not a “King James Only” Bible person, I do think there is a good argument for hanging onto a copy of the King James Version for Bible study.

I read Mark Ward’s marvelous Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible recently, and he makes a very gentle and persuasive case for using multiple Bible translations when studying the Bible. It is perfectly fine to have one Bible version as your “Go-To” translation of choice. But, if possible, we should make use of several versions when doing in-depth Scriptural study, to give us insight that our favorite translation might be missing.

For example, some might be tempted to ditch the old King James Version, as one among your versions, due to its archaic language. But there is a good case for why you should hold off on doing that.

As noted in my book review of Mark Ward’s book, the use of the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in the King James Version, might lead us to think that such language shows a special reverence for God, but this would be wrong. The problem has been accentuated in recent years, by the decision of those who produced the New American Standard Bible (NASB), back in the 1970s. The NASB kept the “thee’s” and “thou’s” with respect to referring to God, and ditched that language when addressing non-divine characters. Apparently, readers of the NASB liked the traditional language for God, so the NASB committee decided not to buck that tradition.

Unfortunately, traditions can easily confuse people. The NASB folks finally fixed that problem by getting rid of all “thee’s” and “thou’s,” by the time of their 1995 revision, but the stigma associated with “thee’s” and “thou’s,” as being formal and more reverent, was pretty well common knowledge by then, and difficult to uproot. Interestingly however, the original purpose for including the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in the King James Version,  in the first place, has been often missed.  Continue reading


Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible: A Review

As a teenager, the first church I started attending, after coming to have personal faith in Christ, was an Independent Baptist church. My closest friend at the time took me there, as it was known for its expository teaching from the Bible, something that was lacking in my more nominal Protestant upbringing.

They also had great potluck suppers.

These people loved their Bible, and I was hungry for it. I devoured what the preacher had to say. The problem was that I had a hard time understanding the Bible version they were using:

It was the King James Version (KJV).

Do not get me wrong. To this day, I love the KJV. There are aspects of modern translations that simply do not hold a candle to the KJV. But some of the KJV English can be rather…confusing. For example, take the all time classic, Psalm 23:1:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The first phrase I got, as a 17 year old, but “I shall not want?“… I shall not want, what? Shall I not want the Lord to be my shepherd??

Huh???

So, I went down to the local bookstore, to see if I could find a Bible translation that was easier for me to understand. I found something called the “NIV” (New International Version):

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.

Ah, that made better sense. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.

But here was the catch: In addition to the NIV, the book store had a whole shelf of different Bible translations. Today, the situation can be even more bewildering, with even more Bible translation choices available. Which one do I pick? Continue reading


The Elusive Quest for the “Best” Bible Translation

I ran across this comic today, posted in an excellent piece by Andy Naselli, a New Testament instructor at Bethlehem College & Seminary, founded by Minneapolis pastor, John Piper. Naselli’s argument is that while many Christians tend to argue that their favorite Bible translation is the best, and every other translation is inferior, it would greatly help if we had some humility here.

Evangelical Christians can get pretty picky when it comes to Bible translations that they implicitly trust. But one of my pet peeves is when people, who have absolutely no background in biblical scholarship, tend to think they know better than people who have been studying the Scriptures in-depth for decades.

The latest brouhaha is over a new Bible translation, the Christian Standard Bible, which is a revision of the Holman Christian Standard Bible. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) was completed in 2004, by a team of scholars, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention.  The new Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is a modern revision of the HCSB.

Critics have charged that the Christian Standard Bible, produced by conservative evangelical scholars, have nevertheless “changed” the Bible to make it “gender inclusive,” thus hiding a liberal agenda. But as I wrote a few years ago, in one of Veracity’s most widely read posts, the issue of “gender accuracy” between the ESV and NIV 2011 translations, two of the most popular translations read by Christians today, tends to vary from passage to passage. In other words, sometimes the ESV is more “gender accurate” than the NIV 2011, but in other cases, the NIV 2011 is more “gender accurate” than the ESV. I tend to prefer the ESV, but I see a number of strengths in other translations, such as the NIV 2011, and the new CSB.

It is true that no scholar, even conservative evangelical scholars, operates without a personal bias. Even the best scholars can be wrong at times. Therefore, one should not take the message of the comic to mean that the average person, without a PhD, should never be able to make their own informed decisions, when reading the biblical text, in order to understand its meaning.

All I am saying is that we all need a little dose of humility, and not quickly dismiss a Bible translation, simply because one or two passages in a different translation do not conform to our own presuppositions. My suggestion would be to visit BibleGateway.com, and pick some passages in your favorite Bible translation, and then compare them to something like the new Christian Standard Bible. Who knows? Perhaps reading something in a different translation may give you greater insight into the Bible.

Here is an interview with Trevin Wax, publisher of the CSB, about the new Bible, and with Tom Schreiner, one of the lead translators, and then a brief comparison review at BibleGateway.com, with other translations.


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