Jeffery L. Sheler, “Is the Bible True?: How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of Scripture”

The author is a journalist (U.S. News & World Report, PBS) and a Christian (apparently Protestant, see page 3).  The book has a 1999 copyright and no index.  The only part of the book I just skimmed was part V, “The Bible Code and Prophecy,” since of course that is silly (I wonder if the author doesn’t give it too much credence before rejecting it).

The book is very good and the secondary title well describes it.  It doesn’t accept everything in Scripture but it overtly rejects little.  There’s a great deal on archaeology for the Old Testament especially, but the author looks at other history, too.  Some specific notes:

  • Chapter 2’s discussion of the solidity of canon selection is very good.
  • Thought:  If Moses wrote the historical part and someone else put in the laws, so what?
  • Jesus’ miracles were not done to show His divinity but to show the coming of the Kingdom of God (212).
  • Thought:  The difference in details among the Gospels helps with their general credibility, even if it’s a problem for complete “inerrancy” (depending on how that’s defined, of course).
  • Page 230:  “The New Testament, as we have seen, bears strong and credible witness of two important pieces of historical data:  an empty tomb and reports of post-resurrection appearances of the risen Christ.”  “Even the most skeptical of scholars concede that something extraordinary happened in Jerusalem after Good Friday to account for the radical change in the behavior of disciples who fled in fear at Jesus’ arrest.”

I also photocopied three longer passages.  One of them (226-27) focuses on the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (see passages from page 230 just quoted).  It’s noted, for example, that there was no dispute at the time that the tomb was indeed empty; the dispute was only about how it came to be empty.  The post-ressurection appearances are stressed by Paul, of course, and “are woven into richly detailed narratives” in all four gospels.

At the end of the second photocopied passage (191, footnote omitted), I wrote, “Choosing to believe something is not ignoble, but faith”:

   The suggestion that his objectivity as a scholar is somehow compromised by his sound Catholic credentials is a criticism [John Meier, a professor at Catholic University and author of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus] finds particularly stinging.  He works hard to keep his academic work and his faith separate. He notes, for example, that while he firmly believes in the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus, “as a historian, I cannot claim the ability to either confirm or deny those.” Too often, he says, “historical scholars make theological claims about Jesus” that “go beyond the realm of historical research. You can’t mix theology and historical research without causing tremendous confusion.”

   Even so, says Meier, good historical data on Jesus “can help inform theology.” And while it will never “create faith where there is none, it does say to the ordinary believer: You are not putting your faith in a fairy tale or some ahistorical symbol, but in a real person who was crucified in the first century.”

I also photocopied the book’s last chapter, “Conclusion” (253-56), which well summarizes the book.  Here it is (I don’t know why the font in the first paragraph is different here):

   At the beginning of this book, I laid out some guiding questions that I have tried to follow carefully and objectively throughout this investigation: In light of the conflicting claims and the often equivocal evidence of modern scholarship, what can be known about the Bible? What can be proved? What is reasonable for modern readers to believe about its authority, its authenticity, and its reliability as a historical witness?

   In subsequent pages I inquired into the Bible’s genre and the credibility of its sources, examined archaeological evidence and exegetical arguments for and against its historical claims, and explored the testimony of other ancient texts that illuminate the content and the context of the Scriptures. And I have tried where appropriate to assess the extent to which the philosophical predilections of scholars sometimes influence both their conclusions and our perceptions regarding the essential historicity of the Bible.

   The answers we have discovered along the way have seldom been simple or singular; indeed, sometimes they have remained elusive, a necessary reflection of the complexity of both the methods of modern historiography and the Bible itself. As we noted at the outset, many of the Bible’s most pivotal claims – the existence of a personal and communicative God, the divine incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, the reality of miracles and of the resurrection – are theological in nature and thus ultimately must remain beyond the reach of historical inquiry and verification.

   And yet, as we have seen, the Bible and the faith it commends are by no means entirely detached from historical examination. To the contrary, we have discovered an abundance of evidence – both direct and indirect – that sheds light on the historical claims and the context of the Scriptures. As we have examined that evidence and considered the scholarly arguments drawn from it, and as we have compared the Scriptures to other written histories from the ancient Near East, we have found the Bible consistently and substantially affirmed as a credible and reliable source of history.

   The Bible is affirmed by the weight of evidence and the strength of early traditions relating to the formation of the scriptural canon. The authority and authentic origins of the Bible, though often perceived today through the haze of intervening centuries as largely obscure and unknowable, were seen much more clearly in the first generations of the Christian era. As we saw in Part One, among those early church fathers – men such as Papias and Polycarp, who were personally acquainted with apostles – there was little serious question as to the identity and authenticity of the New Testament authors. Nor was there any hint of doubt among the leaders of the churches and synagogues of the first and second centuries that the Hebrew Scriptures, long recognized as sacred and inspired, had been written by “Men moved by the Holy Spirit [who] spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). What now are widely viewed as ancient and questionable traditions of source and provenance were considered common knowledge and uncontested fact in those early centuries.

   More important than authorship was the virtually spontaneous acceptance and discernment within the early church’s far-flung precincts of the innate authority of the writings that later would be recognized as the Christian canon – in contrast to a plethora of apocryphal and pseudonymous writings that were circulating at the same time. That early functional recognition, which preceded by more than a century any formal canonical decree, is a powerful testimony to the authenticity and authority of the Scriptures.

   The Bible is affirmed by the weight of evidence from archaeology. As we noted in Part Two, archaeology cannot prove the Scriptures. And there are numerous instances where particular biblical narratives and current archaeological data simply do not match or where archaeology thus far is silent. Yet the wealth of ancient artifacts, inscriptions, and architectural ruins discovered and analyzed during the past century has provided important corroboration for some key episodes of biblical history and has helped to establish a plausible historical and cultural context for many others. Sometimes the corroboration has been dramatic and direct, as in the match between the Bible and ancient Assyrian records of the invasion of Judah by King Sennacherib. In other instances, the evidence is indirect but no less dramatic, as in the discovery of the “house of David” inscription in upper Galilee. The impact overall has been to affirm the historical essence of the Scriptures, to disclose its solid roots in the knowable material past, and often, in the process, to confute the bedrock skeptics who dismiss the Bible as nothing more than a collection of myths and legends.

   The Bible is affirmed by the testimony of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While the ancient manuscripts from Qumran have revealed some intriguing variations in the text of the Bible as it existed at the turn of the era, scholars have found the overall picture emerging from the scrolls to be that of a Bible that has been amazingly accurately preserved for over two millennia. As we saw in Part Three, the language and imagery contained in the sectarian writings from Qumran refute the argument of some modern scholars that certain New Testament concepts were late inventions, reflecting second-century Greek influences on the evolving church rather than authentic first-century content from the days of Jesus. The dualistic imagery of the gospels depicting spiritual warfare between the powers of darkness and light, for example, and messianic references using the terminology “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” were there in the scrolls – a dramatic demonstration that those ideas were clearly part of the Jewish lexicon by the middle of the first century. The scrolls have shown how deeply Christianity was rooted in the Judaism of the time.

   The Bible is affirmed by the intense scholarly scrutiny that has been directed at the gospels in the quest for the historical Jesus. Much has been made of apparent disagreements between the gospels over some of the details in their portraits of Jesus. Those differences, as we noted in Chapter One, did not escape the attention or concern of leaders of the early church. And yet, as perceptive scholars have recognized from that day to this, it is the substantial agreement of the four gospels on the important central facts of Jesus’ birth, his ministry, and his death and resurrection (while allowing for different recollections of peripheral details) that makes their combined testimony so credible. While the synoptic gospels indeed show signs of having shared some proto-gospel sources of information, each also demonstrates an independent perspective and the use of independent source material as well. And still they agree on the basics. The testimony of the gospels would be much more suspect had they been in lock-step on every detail. As we saw in Parts One and Four, the gospels are far more, but certainly no less, than history. They impart historical information, but it is information interpreted and packaged as “good news” proclamation. And while other external sources may help color the background and fill in some gaps, the gospel images of Jesus remain the most vivid, credible, and complete.

   Finally, the Bible is affirmed amid fleeting controversies over the so-called Bible code. As the sensational theories falter and the hyperbole fades, we are reminded that the value and veracity of the Scriptures do not depend on the cleverness of computer scientists and cryptologists in finding secret messages hidden in sacred texts, that the real prophetic power of the Bible is to be found in the wisdom of its words and the truth of its teaching – not in the mathematical manipulation of its component parts.

   Without question, historical accuracy is an essential feature of the Bible’s integrity and authority. As the biblical archaeologist G. Ernest Wright once observed, “In biblical faith, everything depends upon whether the central events actually occurred.” Indeed, the Bible cannot be rendered comprehensible apart from its historical claims.

   Yet as we have been reminded at various points in our investigation, it is not merely to ancient history that the Bible directs our attention. It is to the God who is active in history, redeeming it and infusing it with meaning, that the Scriptures ultimately point. The inspired authors and editors of the Bible perceived giving an account of Israel’s past as telling “his story.” They saw God’s hand at work in the calling forth of a consecrated people in patriarchal times, in the deliverance of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian captivity, and in the rise of a mighty Israelite nation in a land God provided. They heard God’s voice in the ancient precepts from Sinai, in the lilting songs of David, in the sage wisdom of the prophets and apostles, and in the profound aphorisms of the Sermon on the Mount. They perceived God’s faithfulness in the resilience and restoration of an often wayward people through times of oppression and exile. And they sensed God’s love in the utter selflessness of a carpenter from Nazareth who “while we still were sinners…died for us” (Romans 5:8).

   It is as a witness to that sacred history, to the mighty acts of Israel’s God in the affairs of nations and in the lives of people of faith, that the Bible most resoundingly sets itself apart from other ancient texts. More than the precision of its historiography, it is the power of its inspired testimony and the resonance of its timeless message that has earned the Bible the fidelity and trust of countless millions through the centuries who, having read and believed, have encountered in their won experience the self-revealing God of the universe.