Topical Scripture: Revelation 5:1-5
Did you know that some airlines refuse to allow a Christian pilot and co-pilot to fly together, for fear that if the rapture occurs the plane will crash? You didn’t know that because it’s not true. But it’s making the rounds. Did you hear about the Little Rock woman who jumped from her speeding car’s sunroof because she was convinced that Jesus was coming back? That’s because it never happened. But the story is still being published today.
What about this one: “The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 231). That’s more than obscure urban legend–it’s been read by 40 million people. If it’s true, you and I are wasting our time and our lives today.
We need to know why we can trust the Bible. Then we need to trust it today. Where do you most need to hear from God this morning? Let’s see if you can.
How did the Bible come to be?
Historian Teabing calls the creation of the Bible “The fundamental irony of Christianity!” and asserts, “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” (p. 231). If this is true, the Bible we have today was produced by a process which occurred around AD 325. Let’s look at the actual facts.
The Old Testament canon was finalized by two councils held at the city of Jamnia, one in AD 90 and the other in AD 118. Constantine had absolutely nothing to do with the process.
So perhaps Teabing means the canonical process of the New Testament. Here the facts are just as damaging to his case. The early Christians quickly developed four criteria for accepting a book as Scripture.
First, it must have been written by an apostle or based on his eyewitness testimony. This criteria alone exempted the second-century Gnostic books like the so-called Gospel of Judas.
Second, the book must possess merit and authority in its use. For instance, The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ tells of a man who is changed into a mule by a bewitching spell but converted back to manhood when the infant Christ is put on his back for a ride (7:5-27). In the same book, the boy Jesus causes clay birds and animals to come to life (ch. 15), stretches a throne his father had made too small (ch. 16), and takes the lives of boys who oppose him (19.19-24). It was easy to dismiss such fiction.
Third, a book must come to be accepted by the entire church, not just a single congregation or area.
And last, a book must be approved by the decision of the larger church, not just a few advocates.
In the first century, a number of books were soon produced in response to the ministry of Jesus. Other, less reputable books, began to appear as well. However, by the mid-second century only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were accepted universally by the church. The other “gospels” simply did not meet the four criteria for acceptance set out above.
Note that this process was completed two centuries before Constantine. For example, in AD 115 Ignatius referred to the four gospels of our New Testament as “the gospel”; in AD 170, Tatian made a “harmony of the gospels” using only these four; around AD 180, Irenaeus referred to the four gospels as firmly established in the church.
The Muratorian Canon was established around AD 200, representing the usage of the church at Rome at that time. It lists only the four gospels in our Bible today, more than a century before Constantine.
Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 had absolutely nothing to do with the formation of the biblical canon. I have no idea why Brown would make such a fallacious assertion.
F. F. Bruce was one of the world’s foremost authorities on the creation of the Bible. His opinion should be considered: “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect…what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities” (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?).
Can we trust the Bible?
Next we turn to the trustworthiness and authenticity of the Bible as we have it today. “Historian” Teabing claims, “Because Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke. From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history…Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned” (p. 234, emphasis his). Remember what we have already noted–that Constantine had nothing to do with a “new Bible.”
Teabing continues: “Fortunately for historians…some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ’s ministry in very human terms…The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda–to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base” (p. 234). Teabing later calls the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls “the earliest Christian records” (p. 245).
Know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain only the Old Testament. There is absolutely no New Testament document among them. They have nothing to do with any agenda to “promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ.” No one can figure out why Mr. Brown included them in “the earliest Christian records.”
The Coptic Scrolls at Nag Hammadi are not “the earliest Christian records,” either. We possess quotations and biblical copies which are much older than them. And these are decidedly not “Christian” records, reflecting the Gnostic heresy a century later than Jesus.
Nonetheless, these assertions have confused millions. The Bible says of itself, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But we might expect this book to claim to be the trustworthy word of God. Is there objective historical evidence for or against this assertion?
Consider first the manuscript evidence. No original manuscripts exist for any ancient book. Writing materials were too fragile to stand the passage of centuries. This is the case for Aristotle, Plato, Julius Caesar, the writings of Buddha and the Koran just as much as it is for the Old and New Testaments.
However, we possess today some 5,000 ancient Greek copies of the New Testament, and 10,000 copies in other ancient languages. New Testament sections and quotations in the writings of early church fathers date to A.D. 100. Complete volumes of the New Testament date to the 4th century. Note that each predates Constantine.
Now compare these manuscripts with other ancient documents. Of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we have today only nine or ten good manuscripts, none copied earlier than 900 years after Caesar. For the Histories of Tacitus, we have only four and a half of his 14 original books, none copied earlier than the 10th century A.D. For Aristotle’s works, we possess only five manuscripts of any one volume, none copied earlier than A.D. 1100 (14 centuries after the original).
Manuscript evidence for the New Testament is remarkable, far surpassing that which exists for any other ancient book. And those who work with these ancient copies (called “textual critics”) are convinced that they have been able to recover a Greek New Testament which is virtually identical to the original. Quoting F.F. Bruce again, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.”
When Teabing asserts, “History has never had a definitive version of the book” and claims that scholars cannot confirm the authenticity of the Bible, he’s simply wrong.
Let’s look next at the evidence of archaeology. Such findings continue to confirm the geographical and historical veracity of the biblical texts. For instance, the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2ff) was once dismissed as historical fiction. Now archaeologists locate it in the northeast quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. I’ve seen it.
Researchers have identified the remains of Caiaphas, the high priest of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. They have discovered the skeleton of Yohanan, a crucifixion victim from AD 70, and note that these remains confirm the details of Jesus’ crucifixion as it is described in the gospels. Archaeological evidence strongly supports the trustworthiness of the biblical narratives.
Last, consider the evidence of fulfilled prophecy. As I mentioned on Easter Sunday, at least 48 major Messianic prophecies can be identified in the Old Testament. Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled each one. The odds that one man could fulfill them all are one in 10 to the 157th power, a number larger than the atoms of the universe.
Of course, billions of people across 20 centuries can attest to the fact that the teachings of the Bible have been proven true and authoritative in their personal lives. But even such overwhelming subjective evidence to the side, there is still outstanding evidential reason to believe that the Bible is the trustworthy word of God.
Now, what does all this mean to you today? In Revelation 5 we find “in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” (v. 1). Books in the ancient world were written on papyrus, a kind of paper made from papyrus reeds. They were made into sheets about ten inches by eight, joined together horizontally and placed on wooden rollers. Documents written by kings and rulers were tied with string sealed at the knots. Only a person equal in power to the author could break the seal. This task fell to Jesus alone, for “he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (v. 5).
God’s word requires God’s help. You and I cannot unseal its meaning ourselves. But when Jesus opens it to us, it reveals all that we need to know about the past, present, and future. The seven seals broken by Jesus will inaugurate the events which culminate history itself. God has written a book, and his Son wants to help you understand it today.
When last did he? When last did God’s word change your life? If it doesn’t, The Da Vinci Code may as well be right about it. If you and I don’t rely upon its truth every day, walking in its light and obeying its revelation, it may as well be sealed. So, did you meet God in his word this morning? Yesterday? Do you remember what he said to you? Did his word alter your life in any way? What would you like to ask him today?
When serving as a missionary in Malaysia, I gave my leather Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible to a passionate young believer who had no chance to own a study Bible for himself. I’ll never forget the joy on his face. Or the trembling hands of an elderly woman who took a paperback Malay New Testament and held it close to her heart.
I need to treasure God’s word like that. Will you join me?