Part 2: How Do We Know the Bible Is the Word of God?

In Part One of this two part article we asked the question, “How can we know the Bible is true.” That was a theological question.  The question we will address here, “How and where did we get our Bible?” is a historical question, so it gets a historical answer. Basically there are six steps in God getting his message to us in written form. They are as follows:

Revelation (God speaking)
Inspiration (Man recording)
Canonicity (The church recognizing)
Transmission (Men copying)
Translation (Men translating)
Illumination (The Holy Spirit giving understanding)

Let’s briefly look at each of these steps.

There are two basic types of divine “revelation.” The most basic, and general, is the revelation of God in the nature of creation. This is usually referred to as “natural revelation.” Natural revelation is important, yet it is limited to communicating only certain basic concepts regarding God’s existence and nature. Some have attempted to construct a theology based almost entirely on natural revelation; however, such theologies are severely limited, and historically have appealed mostly to deists, who believe in a Creator, but who do not accept the inspiration of the Bible. The other type of revelation is “special revelation.” Special revelation refers to the communication of specific truths by God to man through what we generally regard as “supernatural” means (prophecy, for example). Most of what is communicated in special revelation cannot be obtained through natural revelation. Of course we need to distinguish “type” of revelation (“natural,” or “special”) from “modality” of special revelation (i.e., how God revealed certain specific truths). For example, God has communicated special revelations is varying ways, through the spoken word (Ex. 19:9; 1 Sam. 3:1-14; 2 Sam. 23:1-2), through dreams (Gen. 20:6; 37:5-9; Dan. 2:1-45; Joel 2:28-29), through visions (Gen. 15:1; 46:2; Isa. 1:1; 6:1; Ezek. 1:3), through Jesus Christ (Matt. 12:30-32), and through various works of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26; cf. Jn. 16:13-14).

When we read the Bible we get the impression that special revelation was common in Bible times, but that is only because the Bible compresses vast periods of history into a small amount of space. Actually special revelation was very rare, and even in Bible times we see gaps of hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years between revelations. As far as the biblical record is concerned, revelations from God occurred over only a relatively short period of several hundred years. These revelations almost always occurred at times when there were major transitions in God’s program for his people, for instance, at Mt. Sinai and during the ministry of Christ. These bursts of revelation usually correspond to what are commonly referred to as  “dispensational” transitions in man’s stewardship before God, and incidentally, provide powerful historical evidence of such transitions. Apart from transitions in stewardship that occur at dispensational junctures, God’s people often went many hundreds of years with little or no new revelations from God. The one exception seems to have been the eighth  through the fourth centuries B.C. during which time God sent many prophets to the nation of Israel. (Some passages that illustrate special revelation are: Genesis 20:1ff; Exodus 19:1ff; 1 Samuel 3:1-14; Daniel 7:1ff; Revelation 1:1ff.)

A question that is often asked is whether or not God still gives special revelation today as he did in Bible times. While we cannot give a definitive answer to this question, we do know that nothing has been added to the Bible canon since its close in the first century, and since we have not yet arrived at the next dispensational transition in history we should not be surprised at the paucity of general biblical revelation to the church.

As we have seen, revelation refers to God speaking (i.e., communicating). Not all of what God has communicated has been placed into the Bible, and conversely, not everything in the Bible is a revelation from God. Some of the information in the Bible was available without the need for special revelation (for example: the historical sections of the Old Testament, much of the gospels, and the book of Acts). Inspiration refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the human authors of the Bible to include precisely what God wanted included, and nothing else. When referring to inspiration, one often hears the term “verbal plenary inspiration.” This specifies that the entire Bible (Genesis to Revelation) is inspired right down to the very words (and even the grammar), in its original manuscripts. While numerous theories of inspiration have been put forth, the verbal plenary view is the view implied in the Bible itself, and claimed by the biblical authors. A concise definition of verbal plenary inspiration would be: God guiding the human authors of Scripture, so that using their own unique personality, literary style and vocabulary, they composed and recorded God’s message without error (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

So, apart from the references given above, how do we establish that the Bible is an inspired document? We can best do this by dealing with the Old Testament and the New Testament individually.

The Inspiration of the Old Testament
We will look at three lines of evidence for the inspiration of the Old Testament. First, the Old Testament writers claimed to be speaking and writing God’s Word (Ex: 21:1; 32:16; Isa. 1:1-2; Jer. 1:1-2; Ezek. 1:3). Second, Jesus believed the Old Testament Scriptures to be inspired. He recognized the entire Old Testament (Jn. 5:39; Lk. 24:44-46), as well as all three of the major divisions of the Old Testament (Mk. 7:8-13; Matt. 13:13-14; Jn. 10:34-35). He quoted from many Old Testament books (Genesis: Mk. 10:6-8; Exodus: Lk. 18:20; Numbers: Jn. 3:14; Deuteronomy, Leviticus: Lk. 10:26-28; Samuel: Mk. 2:25; Kings: Matt. 12:42; Psalms: Mk. 12:10; Isaiah: Lk. 4:17-21; Daniel: Matt. 24:15; Malachi: Matt. 11:10). He clearly believed the Old Testament to be historically reliable, as examples, note his treatment of the following Old Testament persons: Adam and Eve (Matt. 19:4-7), Abel (Lk. 11:51), Noah (Matt. 24:37-39), Moses (Jn. 3:14), David (Lk. 20:41), Jonah (Matt. 12:38-41), and Daniel (Matt. 24:15). He submitted himself to the authority of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17-18; Lk. 18:31 [implied]). He attributed Old Testament material directly to the Holy Spirit (Matt. 22:41-46). He used the Old Testament in such a way as to indicate his complete confidence in what it said (Matt. 22:23-33 cf. Ex. 3:6). Third, the New Testament writers believed the Old Testament to be inspired. They quoted from or alluded to most of the Old Testament books. They refer to the Old Testament as “scripture” (Acts 17:11; Rm. 1:1-2; 2 Tim. 3:16). They attributed the Old Testament to the Holy Spirit (Psalm 110 cf. Mark 12:36; Psalm 41:9 cf. Acts 1:16; Psalm 2 cf. Acts 4:24-26; Isaiah 6:9-10 cf. Acts 28:25-27).

The Inspiration of the New Testament
The inspiration of the New Testament can be inferred from two angles. First, Jesus pre-authenticated the New Testament, meaning that he validated it in advance. Since the New Testament wasn’t written until after Jesus returned to heaven, it was necessary for him to pre-authenticate it before it was written. The New Testament has three sections, and Jesus pre-authenticated all three of these sections: the historical books (Matthew-Acts, cf. Jn. 14:26); the doctrinal letters (Romans-Jude, cf. Jn. 16:13-15); and the apocalypse (Revelation, cf. Jn. 16:13). Second, the New Testament writers believed the New Testament to be inspired (cf. John—Rev. 1:1-2; 22:6; Paul—1 Cor. 2:13; 14:37; 1 Thess 2:13; Peter {in reference to Paul’s letters}, cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-16; Jude—Jude 17,18.) Of course, as was said previously, only the Holy Spirit’s direct testimony to the individual can provide the certainty that the Bible is, in fact, the word of God.

Incorrect views of inspiration
By now it shouldn’t surprise you that for every theologically correct position, there are five or ten erroneous ones, really, what are we to suppose that Satan does in his spare time? While we won’t give an extended treatment of any of these views, we will mention them. “Natural inspiration” claims that men of extraordinary creative genius wrote the Bible, but that it is not a supernatural work. “Mystical inspiration” states that the authors were inspired in the same way as Spirit-filled men today are inspired to preach. “Conceptual inspiration” says that God gave the concepts, or ideas, and allowed the human authors to express them in their own ways. “Partial inspiration” claims that some parts of the Bible are more inspired than others, and that some parts might not be inspired at all. Another view that is often confused with verbal plenary inspiration, but which is actually quiet difference is called “dictation.” The dictation view says that God dictated every word and that the human authors were merely acting as secretaries. Of course this view fails to account for individual literary styles and vocabularies.

One question that comes up frequently is this: “Are copies of the original manuscripts inspired?” This is a particularly important question in light of the fact that we don’t have any of the originals. Strictly speaking, inspiration refers to the original composition and recording of the text. Copies are inspired to the extent that they accurately reproduce the original wording, so that makes textual criticism, the science of reconstructing the original text, very important.

One final issue before leaving inspiration is “inerrancy.” Inerrancy deals with the question of whether or not the Bible contains any errors of fact, either historical or theological. Of course, logically if the Bible is the product of divine inspiration (i.e., it was composed and recorded under God’s sovereign guidance), then it must be inerrant in its original documents. According to Deuteronomy 13:1-5, and 18:20-22, only what is absolutely true, and free from error, is to be considered as from God. Therefore, if the Scripture is from God, it must, by this standard, be inerrant. Jesus taught that the Scriptures are absolutely true (Matt. 5:17-20), and both he and his apostles used Scripture in such a way as to indicate their belief in its inerrancy (Matt. 22:32 and Gal. 3:16). One might ask the question, “What is the value of inerrancy since it only applies to the original documents (i.e., the “autographs”) which we not longer possess?” The answer is that we have substantially the same text as the original documents (see below), and having 99.9 percent of something that is 100 percent accurate is quite different from having 99.9 percent of something the accuracy of which is questionable.

Canonicity refers to a book’s status, as to whether or not it should be regarded as divinely authoritative (inspired) and thus worthy to be included within the canon (the body of writings recognized by the church as the Word of God). Perhaps you have wondered how the early church knew which books should be regarded as part of the Bible, and which ones should be excluded (like Tobit, Judith, Baruch, the Gospel of Thomas)? Many people mistakenly think that some group of church officials at the council of Nicia in A.D. 325 sat down and voted on which books they thought should be included and that’s how we got our Bible. But that simply isn’t the way it happened. Actually, so far as we can determine, each target group to which a portion of Scripture was addressed immediately recognized it as Scripture on a par with all other Scripture. So far as can be determined, this appears to be true of both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures. Note the following examples of how Scripture was immediately recognized as the Word of God by the target audience. Moses’ writings were placed beside the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:24-29). Daniel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, regarded Jeremiah’s prophetic writings as Scripture (Dan. 9:1-2 cf. Jer. 25:11). Peter recognized Paul’s writing as being on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:14-16). Church councils only stated the churches’ official recognition on the books that had long since been received, and denied equal status to more recent, spurious documents.

In order to understand how we came to have the specific sixty-six books that are in our Bible we need to look at the formation of the Old Testament and New Testament canons individually. [The word “canon” means “authority,” or “standard” by which other things are judged. The word “canon” when used of Scripture refers to the books deemed to be authoritative, i.e., God’s Word. The Protestant canon contains sixty-six books. The Roman Catholic canon is longer, having added several books in the sixteenth century which were not regarded as canonical by the early church, to which effect Jerome included a notation in his Latin translation.]

Let’s look at the status of the Old Testament and New Testament canons. The question of which books should be included in the Old Testament is fairly simple and was settled before Christ was born. Note the following: 1) Except for the Sadducees, who only accepted the books of Moses, the Jewish people regarded as Scripture the same thirty-nine books as the Protestant church today, though they had them arranged so that some books now split were combined, e.g., 1 & 2 Samuel, and in a different order. Hence, the Old Testament that Jesus used was essentially the same as the one used today. 2) The Old Testament apocryphal books officially adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century were never accepted as Scripture by Jesus, the Jewish people, or the early Church. 3) Early quotations of apocryphal books by some church fathers occurred at a time when the extent of the Old Testament canon was not well understood, especially by non-Jewish religious leaders, and some may have mistakenly thought that some of those books had been an accepted part of the Hebrew canon, when in fact they were not. (Jerome’s early historical notation to the apocrypha makes this very clear.)

Concerning the New Testament canon, since the gospels and the letters that were written to the early churches were scattered over the Roman Empire, it took a bit of time for the churches to assess what they had and to weed out common letters from those received as the inspired Word of God. There was very little pressure to do this until suspicious documents began to show up in doctrinal disputes; then it became necessary to determine the scope of the New Testament canon. It is extremely important to understand that the early church did not determine which books would become Scripture; they merely endeavored to recognize which books the churches had already received as Scripture, and to exclude any other documents. Such tests weren’t arbitrary; they were derived from what church leaders already knew about the character of Scripture from those books of undisputed authenticity. The following are some of the questions the early church used to assess the status of a document in question: 1) Does the writing claim to be inspired, and is its message consistent with other books of undisputed authenticity? 2) Is the author a recognized servant of God (an apostle, prophet, or early church leader)? 3) Are there good reasons to believe the document was written at the time and by the author from whom it purports to have originated? (In other words: “Is it authentic?”) 4) Is the document factually correct? 5) Does the document claim to be authoritative (i.e., the word of the Lord)? 6) Is the document in doctrinal agreement with other accepted books? 6) Is there any evidence of fulfilled prophecy in the document? 7) Does the book have a universal character (i.e., a message that transcends the local culture and milieu)? 8) Is the message of the document sublime (that is, based on what we know about God from other received books, can we conceive of God saying the things contained in the document)? Don’t get the idea that this exact list of questions was checked off for each and every book or document, but generally if a document was challenged, it was challenged on the grounds of one or more of the issues raised by these questions.

Given that God has communicated to man (revelation) and that man under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has been able to accurately and faithfully record that message without error, how do we know that the Bible we have today is anything close to the original that was inspired? Couldn’t the content have changed over the years? The answer is, “Yes.” In fact, of the thousands of ancient manuscripts we have of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, no two are identical. Providentially, however, in most cases the differences are minor and it is possible to figure out the correct reading. We are aided by the fact that we have so many manuscripts to compare; there are about five thousand early Greek manuscripts, or portions of manuscripts, of the New Testament alone. That’s a lot of material to work with! Besides many of the differences are merely alternate spellings or accidents like skipping a word, or a line of text. Remember, all of the early documents were copied by hand.

Textual Criticism
How do Bible scholars determine which manuscripts are best, and how do they resolve conflicts between manuscripts? These questions take us into the area of biblical studies known as “textual criticism.” Textual criticism deals with determining the most accurate reading of the biblical text. Scholars who engage in textual criticism usually specialize in the study of either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Some scholars who work in this field do not accept the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration, and that is bound to show up in some of their conclusions. Nevertheless, textual criticism is a necessary endeavor, since we don’t have any of the original manuscripts, sometimes referred to as the “original autographs.” We simply have to be careful to do our homework and make sure the textual critic’s conclusions are based on sound reasons.

Anyone who has ever made an attempt to decide which is the best reading of the biblical text has practiced some form of textual criticism. However, modern textual criticism as a scholarly, and quasi-scientific endeavor began in the eighteen hundreds with the work of Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. Neither of these men believed in verbal plenary inspiration. Nonetheless, they laid a framework that is still largely used by textual critics today. Some of the basic principles used in textual criticism are as follows: 1) Because manuscripts when copied tend to get longer with each copy, the shorter reading is usually preferred. (There may, however, be good reasons for accepting the longer version.) You may be asking how these manuscripts got longer when copied. The answer is that scribes often placed explanatory notes in the margins of the manuscripts, later copyists, thinking these were corrections of omissions, simply put the marginal notations into the text. 2) Since copyists tend to smooth out difficult readings, the awkward wording might be closer to the original. Obviously this has to be taken with a dose of common sense. It doesn’t mean that if a particular manuscript really butchers the text, it’s the best one! It simply means that we should be on the lookout for signs of subsequent editing. 3) The variation in reading that most naturally accounts for how other variations arose is probably closer to the original. This means is that if reading “Y” could have come from making some kind of simple mistake in copying reading “X,” then reading “X” is probably closer to the original. 4) The variation that best exemplifies the style and vocabulary of the author and best fits with the context is probably the best reading. (Obvious, right?) Of course these guidelines have to be applied with common sense; they are not “hard and fast rules.”

The reliability of the modern Hebrew and Greek texts
Since our translations are made from the Hebrew and Greek texts, those translations cannot be any more accurate than the texts from which they are translated. So, the question of the reliability of our Hebrew and Greek texts is of enormous importance. Let’s look first at the text of the Old Testament. Our present day Hebrew text is based on what is called the “Masoretic Texts” dating from about A.D. 900. Until fairly recent times we didn’t have any way to independently check the accuracy of the Masoretic Texts (since they were the oldest and best manuscripts we had of the Old Testament). However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940’s changed that. Contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls collection are a number of ancient Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, much older than the Masoretic Texts that we already had. The discovery of manuscripts of the Old Testament that were, in some cases, a thousand years older than what we previously possessed gave scholars the opportunity to check the accuracy of the Hebrew text we have used since the middle ages. What they discovered was that over the period of time from the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Masoretic Text (a period of about one thousand years), the hand copying of the Old Testament resulted in very minor alterations to the text. That was good news, because if the Hebrew manuscripts could be copied from 150 B.C. to A.D. 900 with only minor deviations, it’s possible they were copied from the time of their original composition with similar accuracy. The reading of the Old Testament text is probably as settled as it’s going to be unless some more very old manuscripts are discovered.

The text of the Greek New Testament is well attested. Today we have over 24,000 early Greek manuscripts and translations of the New Testament. Although much of this material is fragmentary (not complete manuscripts), it is nonetheless an astounding quantity of material from which to determine the original reading of the text. Of these 24,000+ documents, or portions of documents, approximately 5,300 are Greek manuscripts, 10,000 are early Latin translations of the New Testament, and about 9,300 are other early translations, including Syriac. No other ancient manuscript is as well attested as the New Testament.  New Testament scholars who study the transmission of the New Testament text are convinced that 99.9% of the text of the New Testament is certain. This means that only about one word in one thousand is in question. Consider how the New Testament stacks up to other ancient documents. Homar’s writings date from about 900 B.C.; the earliest copy we have dates from about 400 B.C., some 500 hundred years removed from the original composition. (We have about 640 ancient copies.) Tacitus wrote in A.D. 100. The earliest copy we have is from about 1100, some 1000 years after the original composition. (There are about 20 copies.) Aristotle’s works date from about 322 B.C., and the oldest copy we have is about A.D. 1100, some 1400 years removed from the original source. (There are less than 50 copies.) The composition of Plato’s works dates from 347 B.C., and the oldest copy dates from about A.D. 900, some 1200 years removed from the source. (There are only seven very old copies.) Comparing these to the text of the New Testament, the New Testament was written between A.D. 40 and 100, and the oldest portion we have dates from about A.D. 125, only about twenty-five years removed from the source, and we have over 24,000 early manuscripts, fragments, and translations of the New Testament. At the very least, it is safe to say that the text of the New Testament is well attested historically. No other ancient document has so many manuscripts so close to the time of actual composition. The abundance of early manuscript evidence means that we can be confident we know the original wording of the New Testament (at least within 99.9%).

The last step in making Scripture available in other languages, such as English, is “translation.” Without translation we would either have learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, or we wouldn’t be able to read the Bible. In many ways translation is the trickiest step in the sequence we have been describing. As has been indicated, the original autographs were free from errors. As the manuscripts were transmitted (copied) over the centuries, various errors, usually very small, crept in. As we have seen, most of these errors can be identified and corrected through textual criticism (common sense). However, the very nature of translation makes this step particularly vulnerable to the introduction of errors. The reason is that translators are beset with an extremely difficult task, and they must use a fair amount of discretion in the way they choose to translate. You may ask why they can’t just give a word for word rendering from the Hebrew and Greek and let us figure out what is being said. (Interlinear translations actually do this.) But that’s not really a good solution because both Hebrew and Greek employ entirely different grammars than English. Simply rendering each successive word into English would result in tremendous confusion because it would effectively strip away the grammar, which is the key to understanding how the words were used. It would be like receiving a coded message without having the decoding key!

Translators generally try to produce a translation that strikes a balance between two objectives: accuracy and readability. Unfortunately these two objectives sometimes exist on opposite ends of the translation spectrum. Here’s the way it usually works in translating either Hebrew or Greek into a language like English. The more accurate the translation, the harder it is to read. The reason is that this type of translation tends to render the text as close as possible to the original language structure, and that structure is often unfamiliar to the modern reader (especially if he or she is reading in English). On the other hand, translations that are highly readable tend to track poorly with the original structure. Do you see the problem? The more precise the translation, the more difficult it is to read, and the more readable it is, the less precise it is likely to be. Now do you see why we have so many new translations? Everyone thinks they can do a little better than the previous attempts to hit just the right balance.

How do you go about finding the best translation to use in your reading and study of the Word? The following guidelines should help. 1) A good translation should be just that—a “translation.” Don’t confuse a translation with a “paraphrase.” A paraphrase is a restatement of the Scripture in someone’s own words—the goal being to make the Bible easier to understand. “The Living Bible” and “The Message” are examples of a paraphrase. Unfortunately, paraphrases are interpretations rather than translations of the text. So, while you may think you’re getting the Word of God, what you are actually getting is what the person producing the paraphrase thinks the Bible is saying—there could be a very big difference! Paraphrases can be helpful when used correctly as an aid along side your Bible, similar to a commentary. 2) A good translation should be readable. If you can’t understand what it’s saying, how is it going to do you any good? 3) A good translation should reflect a high degree of theological scholarship. Let’s face it, some translational decisions hinge on the underlying theology of the translator. (Theology is the ultimate “context” for the translator.) So, if the Bible translators are theologically biased, it’s likely that their translations will be also. 4) Beware of translations made by one person. The best check on any translation is that several qualified translators came to agreement on the correct rendering. One-person volumes may, however, be good study aids to use along side your Bible. 5) A good translation should take advantage of the most recent advances in the knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and in textual criticism. Many people incorrectly think that we know less about biblical languages today than did people in the past, after all weren’t they closer to Bible times? Actually the opposite is true. There are more scholars working with more ancient source material today than at any other time in history. Only one hundred years ago scholars thought that the Greek of the New Testament was a unique “biblical Greek” (some called it “Holy Ghost Greek”). Today, having discovered tens of thousands of documents from ancient times, we know that the Greek of the New Testament was the common language of the first century, it’s even called “koinā”—or “common” Greek, and those documents have taught us much about the meanings of words and even the grammar itself.

Finally, we need to remember that the Bible is a book about spiritual things and we need the help of God’s Spirit to understand them. Paul teaches this principle in 1 Corinthians 2:9-16. If you aren’t getting all that you think you should from your study of the Bible, seek God’s help.

Copyright 2005, revised and republished June, 2018, by Sam A. Smith,