Truth and Scripture

This post argues that (1) there are sound bases for believing that Scripture is true — and (2) I give some particular attention to the first nine chapters of Genesis, which in my opinion belong to a unique Bible genre — and that (3) Christians should strive to interpret Scripture so that it is consistent with the truth.

[1] Scripture Is True

Here are some general points about the consistency of Scripture with the truth:

  • I’ll begin by making that point that, in interpreting Scripture and in assessing whether a particular interpretation is consistent with the truth, we must bear in mind a book’s (or passage’s) genre. Consider the Psalms. You can’t really prove that a particular way of praying is true or false; all you can argue about is whether God is likely to have inspired it (although I suppose psychiatrists will argue with one another about whether a particular kind of prayer is emotionally healthy or not).
  • On the other hand, an historical narrative is certainly verifiable and falsifiable. I think these are the parts of the Bible we most often have in mind when we argue about whether Scripture is true or not.
  • The credibility of a book’s author, or authority quoted by the author, can also be objectively impugned or defended.   I’ll note that, with respect to the latter, one can often argue persuasively:  Why would Jesus lie? Why would Paul lie? Why would the Jews make up all their unflattering history?
  • While a biblical text cannot self-authenticate, it can bear marks of authenticity or inauthenticity. For example: the presence of random details; what we lawyers call “statements against interest”; and of course conformity with what we learn from other historical or archaeological sources — like whether the names we find in the Gospels were really those that were commonly used in first-century Palestine (they were).
  • Indeed, much has been written defending the historical accuracy of Biblical narratives, in both the Old and New Testaments, citing archaeological finds, parallel historical works, and the like.

Evidence of the Bible’s truth is of course reassuring for believers.

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But it cannot be denied that sometimes Scripture’s authenticity is challenged. I think those challenges fall into two broad categories: (1) textual authenticity (for example, an assertion that Paul didn’t write this particular letter, or that what is presented as one of his letters actually seems to be a compilation of other sources); and (2) substantive authenticity (for example, scientists tell us that the world was not created in a way consistent with the first chapter in Genesis).

Regarding textual authenticity, I’ll say just that here again, while there is plenty of controversy, much has been written showing that the Bible’s texts hold up quite well. And if, for example, it seems likely that Paul really wrote five letters to the Corinthians and that I and II Corinthians are really an amalgam of them, or that some other letter was written not by Paul but by one of Paul’s followers relying his understanding of Paul’s views — well, my faith can withstand that.

Now, with respect to substantive authenticity, I think it’s useful to identify three sorts of attacks. First, some will say that, when the Bible recounts a miracle, that’s false, because miracles are impossible. Second, others will say that, when the Bible recounts a particular historical event, it gets the chronology wrong or inflates the number of people killed in a battle or something of that sort. Third, still others will say that, when the Bible recounts some matter, it is making the whole thing up.

The response to the first sort of attack is simply that, if God exists, then He can perform miracles, and so the Bible’s authenticity cannot be persuasively attacked simply because it records God doing so from time to time. If an atheist argues that the Bible is false because it asserts the presence of God, and God doesn’t exist, he is assuming the answer to the fundamental question.

I have to leave the response to the second sort of attack to historians, who will in turn have to consider each instance on a case-by-case basis. It’s not a static dispute, since the evidence we have available is always changing, and the standards themselves are not cut and dried — so that, for example, in addition to whether there actually is a faulty chronology or head count, it is also sometimes unclear if the Bible’s authors even meant to put things in chronological order, and that sometimes ancient histories had conventions regarding how to record head counts or speeches or genealogies that are different from today’s conventions.

It’s the third kind of attack that I think believers have to take most seriously. Supernatural, yes; counterfactual, no. What ought to disturb Christians is not a claim that something in Scripture couldn’t have happened, since after all with God all things are possible. Rather, it is a claim that something recounted in Scripture didn’t happen.

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So I think it might be useful to go through the Bible and consider in broad terms which parts might be most vulnerable, as well as which parts are unlikely to be vulnerable at all.

I’ll begin with the good news, in both senses: The New Testament is solid. The epistles and Revelation do not belong to genres that can be attacked persuasively as false, and the historical events related in the Gospels and Acts bear up well. An atheist may object a priori to a miraculous Resurrection, but there is strong evidence indeed for the empty tomb.

There are also big chunks of the Old Testament that really cannot be seriously attacked as lacking substantive authenticity. A proverb cannot be attacked this way, for example, nor a prayer/psalm, nor a statement of attitude toward God and life, nor a poetic discourse on love. Thus, of the Wisdom books, only Job might be attacked as counterfactual, and then only if one considers it as historical rather than as poetic philosophy or philosophical poetry — a long parable. Most of the prophets, both major and minor, are likewise not focused on providing historical narratives (the prominent exceptions being Daniel among the former and Jonah among the latter).

So we’re left with the Torah and Jewish history. The latter, as alluded to above, generally holds up well and, indeed, is often bolstered by recent archaeological finds, as well as by its own thematic (the constant backsliding) statement against Jewish interest. As for the Torah, the laws recounted there are not in a category that can be persuasively attacked as counterfactual, any more than proverbs or prayers can. And the history of the tribe of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons, and Moses and his successors, seems perfectly believable as a historical matter. Again, miracles occur, but if there is a God, then He must be allowed the occasional miracle.

FOOTNOTE: It is also possible that there will one day be conclusive evidence that parts of the Moses narratives are false: The dramatic and public Egyptian plagues, culminating with the deaths of a whole nation’s first-born, and then the parting of the Red Sea and obliteration of a pursuing army — all of that gives one pause. This is not only miraculous, but also the sort of thing that we would expect to have been commented on, and the narrative may well not strike the lay reader as metaphorical rather than historical. On the other hand, we should not expect Egyptian official accounts to have been eager to record this humiliating series of events, and who besides official scribes was writing history back then?  What’s more, the exodus predates David by 500 years and thus belongs to a time when historical records were at best spotty and often now lost, and are susceptible to interpretations as at worst exaggerations rather than fabrications (i.e., the Sea of Reeds was in the middle of a drought, etc.).

But what, dear reader, about Genesis before we get to Abraham? To me, that’s the part where the unwary are most vulnerable to being trapped.

[2] A Special Note on Genesis 1-11

Genesis is a great beginning for the Bible insofar as it contains deep and compelling narratives, but the first eleven chapters are among the Bible’s weakest with respect to believability when read the wrong way.

In my view, after the Tower of Babel has been discussed and the the Abraham narrative has begun, the Old Testament stops being a “creation story” and starts being a Jewish history. That is, the genre changes.

That break is not total, because of course God remains present and His character doesn’t change, and there is also the Bible’s genealogies that bind the early chapters of Genesis with the rest of that book and so with the rest of the Bible. But the break is there nonetheless.

And, again, once the narrative of Abraham and his descendants is under way, nothing wildly implausible happens. There is family dysfunction, to be sure, but nothing that would shock any fan of reality television. The ages of the individuals sometimes seem dubious, and there is a miracle or two plus Joseph’s uncanny dreams and interpretation of the dreams of others, but — I’ll say it once more — if there is a God then He ought to be allowed a miracle or two.

No, the passages that might cause a serious nonbeliever to remain a nonbeliever come earlier — specifically: (a) Are we really to believe that the creation of the universe, including the Earth and all its life forms up to and including mankind, took place in only six days, let alone that this all happened just a few thousand years ago?; (b) that a talking snake led to the fall of mankind?; (c) that people once lived to be hundreds of years old?; (d) that two or more of all earth’s terrestrial animals were fit into a big boat that safely floated while the entire earth was covered with water?; and (e) that the earth’s various languages sprang from God’s irritation at the presumption of would-be builders of the first skyscraper?

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But there are straightforward and plausible explanations for all these passages.

Re (a): It is not necessary to interpret the Creation account in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis in a way that is contradicted by science. Indeed, a reasonable interpretation finds remarkable congruity between science and the Creation account. The beauty and majesty of the language in the chapters 1 and 2 suggests we are reading poetic truth rather than a dry chronology. And I found this book to be particularly helpful (embedded link is to my discussion of the book elsewhere on this blogsite): Gerald L. Schroeder, “The Science of God:  The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom.”

Re (b): As for Chapter 3, while it is theologically key, I’ll note in passing that there is little in it that is heavy-lifting materially. That is, what actually happens in chapter 3 is not materially implausible so long as you believe in the presence of God and Satan (and that Satan can adopt the form of a talking snake); note, by the way, that the following chapter, which recounts the murder of Abel by Cain, contains nothing supernatural except for God’s presence. But my real point is that chapter 3 simply reads more, makes sense more, as a simple and straightforward symbolism, as an allegory whose truth we see reenacted every day: Arrogant and stupid people want to substitute themselves for God, and the results are always bad. And while we need not in my opinion take chapter 3 literally, we ought to take it very seriously indeed.  For a little more on this, see my post here.

Re (c): As for how to read the advanced ages of people in the opening chapters of Genesis, I thought this discussion was plausible and helpful: https://biologos.org/articles/long-life-spans-in-genesis-literal-or-symbolic/

Re (d): Chapters 6-8 of Genesis contain the account of Noah’s ark. How much of it are we to take as literally true, and how are we to interpret those parts which are not? My suspicion is that it can probably be shown that a flood completely covering the earth is unlikely at best, and then there is the matter of whether all terrestrial animals could be put into one boat and preserved for a year. Here again, I think it’s important to distinguish between a problem with what God could have done versus whether what He actually did. Thus, I don’t think that we have to concede that, if Noah could not have gotten all the animals onto the ark unless it had been 20 cubits taller, then the account must be false; if God was able to summon all the species of the world to Noah, He could shrink the giraffes. So the account might all be literally (and thus miraculously) true; or it might be based events at the time of an ancient flood, albeit one less cataclysmic than the one in the inspired Genesis story; or it might be completely a creation myth. In any of these cases, of course, the account might contain inspired, metaphorical truths: that God hates sin, that He nonetheless loves people, that He is powerful. And so, if the scientific evidence shows that the Flood not just couldn’t happen but didn’t happen, it’s easily enough read as part of the Creation story (along with what comes immediately before it and what comes immediately after it in Genesis.)

Re (e): Here’s the whole account of the Tower of Babel (chapter 11):

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Now, if you consider this account carefully, there’s a completely believable part, a somewhat more challenging part, and then a completely unbelievable part. Most of this event is quite plausible: that a people would become arrogant and self-aggrandizing in a way that offends God. That God would choose to foil their self-aggrandizement by making it impossible for them to communicate with one another is obviously a supernatural event, but there’s no reason to think that, if there is a God, this would be beyond His capability. The real problem is if we read this as a story that explains why we have people all over the earth and why they speak different languages. It’s not that God couldn’t do this — that is, create all the world’s languages and disperse all mankind in one fell swoop — if He wanted to; it’s that I’m sure there is overwhelming anthropological evidence that He didn’t (for one thing, that the development of different languages came after and as a result of the migrations, not before). Accordingly, I think we should treat this as simply the last part of the Creation story, which continues the man-rebels-against-God theme. It’s a fitting finale, since it shows that man’s arrogance did not end with the Flood, and that it exists for group entities as well as individuals (chapter 3). The stage is now set for God to choose a people.

[3] Apologists Must Strive for Truth

To me, it’s very important for an apologist to persuade people that the Bible is true, and particularly those parts where God is telling people to believe in Him and His Son and how to behave. So it disturbs me when some Christians seem to relish interpreting the parts that contain historical accounts to be as unbelievable as possible: “Oh yeah?” they seem to be bragging to one another, “Well, not only do I believe in Noah’s ark, but I believe that he had all the dinosaurs on it, and I believe that it hadn’t rained until the Flood.  Oh, and the dinosaurs all started out as vegetarians, including T-rex.” For some reason, just as political activists often try to out-extreme one another (on both sides of the aisle), alas this seems to happen with religionists, too.

I’ll make the point here, too, that some supernatural events are harder to believe than others. That’s certainly the case if a supernatural event is counterfactual, and it may also be easier for some people to believe in principle that there is a Supreme Being than, say, that a man was swallowed by a big fish and survived for three days inside of it.

I’m not trying to cut and paste together an OT “Jefferson Bible,” but I think it is worth reassuring people that you’re not signing onto some crazy cosmology when you become a Christian. There’s God, and He does amazing things, and in many ways the most important parts of Scripture and its message are supernatural, but Scripture is not counterfactual or anti-science even though it encompasses the supernatural.

Likewise, Christians should not ignore or minimize or distort Bible passages because a fair reading of them would be unpopular, just to get people to believe other parts. But where the problem is an interpretation that is not so much unpopular as it is unbelievable — because it is counterfactual — then it seems to me perfectly appropriate for an apologist to strive for an interpretation that is, well, true.