Why Read the Bible?
Some years ago, I informed my congregation that over the next few months something would happen in our church that the world would find strange. In the first place, I proposed to preach on a book that was more than 3,000 years old, and second, I knew the whole congregation would be there each week to listen. And they were there—for the 30 weeks as we worked our way through the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.
Across the world every week, millions of Christians listen to thousands of sermons from the Bible, a book that begins at the dawn of history itself. Why do they listen? The answer is that Christians believe the Bible to be both reliable and relevant to the need of twenty-first century people to learn about their God and how they should live to please Him.
But must they have blind, unreasonable faith to believe the Bible to be true? Or are there sound reasons that the Bible, and specifically for this chapter, the Old Testament, can be accepted as reliable in every part?
What the Bible Writers Believed
The Old Testament writers believed their message was God-breathed and, therefore, utterly reliable. More than 400 times from Exodus 4:22 to Malachi 1:4, they declared, in just three Hebrew words, “Thus says the Lord.”
To emphasize this divine authority many of the prophets received God’s message through a powerful experience. For example, the prophet Jeremiah recorded that at the beginning of his ministry, “The Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me: ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth’” (Jeremiah 1:9).
The prophets so identified themselves as God’s spokesmen that they frequently spoke as though God Himself were speaking. In Isaiah 5:1–2 the prophet spoke of God in the third person—He—but in verses 3–6 Isaiah spoke for God in the first person—I. Isaiah had become the actual spokesperson for God. No wonder King David spoke of the word of the Lord as “perfect” (2 Samuel 22:31; see also Proverbs 30:5. The NIV translates this word as “flawless”).
The New Testament writers did not doubt that the Old Testament prophets spoke for God. Peter and John saw the words of David in Psalm 2, not as the opinion of a king in Israel, but as the Word of God: “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David” (Acts 4:25, NIV). Similarly, Paul accepted Isaiah’s words as God speaking to men: “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers” (Acts 28:25).
The New Testament writers were so convinced all the words of the Old Testament Scripture were inspired by God that they even claimed, “Scripture says,” when the words quoted came directly from God. For example, “
The Scripture says to the Pharaoh” (Romans 9:17).
Clearly, the Lord Jesus Himself believed the words of the Old Testament were God-breathed. In John 10:34 (quoting from Psalm 82:6), He based His teaching upon a single phrase: “I said, ‘You are gods.’” In Matthew 22:43–44 He quoted from Psalm 110:1 and emphasized a single word, “Lord,” to reveal Himself as the Son of God.
Where Are All the Gods?
The entire history of Israel covered by the Old Testament took place under the shadow of at least four major empires across the Fertile Crescent: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. Their influence is seen throughout the Old Testament record, and the religious life of each of these powers was dominated by a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Egyptian collection included at least 1,500 gods, a number nearly matched by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. They had gods for the land and sea, hills and valleys, planets and seasons, birth and death, and everything in between. The pantheon of the Greeks and Romans who carried us into the New Testament was equally numerous. Their collection included the same gods with different names as centuries and empires rolled by.
In staggeringly marked contrast to this polytheism, the Israelites, from their earliest history, were taught to believe in one God and one alone. Moses fixed this truth in the mind of the nation: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Other ancient peoples of the world were polytheistic, so where did this “strange” idea come from? And why did the prophets of Israel hold to monotheism so firmly? The often quoted idea that Israel garnered its religious ideas from the surrounding nations is completely toppled by the fact that Israel stood alone as a people who believed there was only one God, the God of the whole universe. Jonah’s God of “heaven, sea, and land” (Jonah 1:9) was a radical idea to the sailors on the Phoenician ship as well as to the citizens of Nineveh.
Tell It like It Is
Another unique feature of the Old Testament is its ruthless honesty in the records of Israel. In the ancient world, bad things were not recorded. If a king lost a battle, either government spin would turn it into a victory or else the defeat would simply be left unstated in the records. The fifty year struggle between the Egyptians and the Hittites, in which both sides were frequently bested in the fight, is vividly recorded in the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel as a great victory for the Pharaoh. Similarly, when recording the ancient dynasties of Egypt, this king deliberately omitted the dynasty of Amenhotep IV, who was considered the “heretic king” for elevating the god Aten above all others in the pantheon.2 The Romans followed suit with purposeful omissions from the record, and they had a phrase for it: damnatio memoria (the damnation of memory). To record it was to perpetuate it; to ignore it meant that it never happened.
Contrast this with the authenticity of the Old Testament. If Israel lost a battle, it was recorded. When Israel’s hero King David committed a terrible double crime of adultery and murder that was also recorded. Even the godly King Hezekiah, in whose reign a spiritual revival took place, is on record as failing in his latter days and committing an act of foolish pride that brought disaster on the nation in years to come (2 Kings 20:12–18).
Why did the Israelites buck the majority vote of the nations and refuse to censor their history?
Tell It like It Will Be
The fulfillment of biblical prophecy has always been a great embarrassment to the critics of the Bible, and their only escape route is to believe that the prophecies were written long after the event predicted. One significant problem with this conjecture is that no one has been able to explain how the “prophetic con men” managed to pull off their “deception” so consistently, convincingly, and completely over so many centuries!
One writer on this subject has concluded that “the number of prophecies in the Bible is so large and their distribution so evenly spread through both Testaments and all types of literary forms that the interpreter is alerted to the fact that he or she is dealing with a major component of the Bible.”3 With that amount available, we can only toe the water here.4
The punishment for a prophet who gave false predictions was death.
The prophets of God challenged the false prophets of the nations to tell something prophetic: “‘Present your case,’ says the Lord. ‘Bring forth your strong reasons,’ says the King of Jacob. ‘Let them bring forth and show us what will happen; let them show the former things, what they were, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare to us things to come.’” (Isaiah 41:21–22).
The punishment for a prophet who gave false predictions was death. Conversely, the prophet Ezekiel, when prophesying of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, could claim with confidence, “When this comes to pass—surely it will come—then they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:33). For an Israelite it was unimaginable that a prophet would write up his “prophecy” after the event! A prophet would be stoned for such deceit.
The Prophecy of Nahum
The small book of Nahum in the Bible contains a clear prophecy of the final destruction of Nineveh, the capital of the powerful Assyrian empire. If the prophet had written his prophecy after the event, it is hardly likely that the Jews would have been so gullible as to have accepted the retrospective prophecy of a prophet they knew to be still among them.
The argument most favored by scholars who will not accept Bible prophecy is that the author, under the pseudonym of Nahum, wrote many years beyond the lifetime of any who could have witnessed the fall of Nineveh. The problem with this argument is that Nahum records the precise way in which this impregnable city would eventually fall: primarily through fire and water (see Nahum 1:10, 2:4, 6–8, 3:8, 13, 15). Archaeologists have discovered how accurate his descriptions are, and some of the fire-burnt palace reliefs can be seen in the British Museum in London.5 The city was so utterly destroyed in 612 BC that two centuries after its destruction, the Greek historian Xenophon sat on top of the ruins and had no idea what city it had been. It would be another 2,246 years before the site was positively identified!
Attempts to deny Nahum’s accurate prophecy of the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC are more difficult to accept than believing real prophecy took place.
The Prophecies About Christ
The clearest and most challenging evidence of the reliability of the Old Testament is its consistent promise of the coming of the Messiah. Not even the most liberal critic of the Bible will doubt that Micah 5, Zechariah 9, Psalm 22, and Isaiah 53, to take four examples among many, were written centuries before Christ was born. Yet the details of His birth, triumphal entry, Crucifixion, and burial are too close to doubt the connection. The suggestions that either Jesus deliberately arranged to fulfill the prophecies (including His place of birth and the soldiers casting lots for His clothes) or that the accounts were written two or three centuries after the events have themselves long been consigned to the stuff of myth.6
The Voice of Silent Stones
Archaeology is rubbish, but sometimes it turns up gold. Archaeology searches through yesterday’s trash to discover how people lived, worked, fought, and died, as well as what they believed. The mantra that “archaeology disproves the Bible” is simple to refute if only people would check out the evidence. Archaeology is a big subject, so we can focus only on a few illustrations. But remember that the purpose of archaeology, as James Hoffmeier comments, is not to prove the Bible but to improve it.7 By this he means that archaeology can throw new light on old accounts and help us understand the Bible better.
Many details of the Bible, once rejected as fanciful at best or in error at worst, are now accepted by biblical scholars. Here are three of many.
Critics once claimed King David did not ever exist since they could find no record of him outside the Bible. The common idea was that sometime after the Persians came to power in the sixth century BC, he and Solomon were invented by Jewish scribes in order to boost the morale of the Jews in exile.
In July 1993 at Tel Dan in northern Israel, a broken basalt inscription was found, which is dated by archaeologists to the eighth century BC. The inscription claims that the king of Damascus (Ben-Hadad of Syria) killed the king of Israel (that would be Jehoahaz) and the king of the “house of David” (that would be Joash of Judah). The account is found in 2 Kings 13:1–25. This means that the dynasty of King David was known 250 years before the scribes supposedly invented him in the sixth century BC!8 Few now deny the existence of David as a figure of history.
The King Who Never Existed
For a long time the only reference to an Assyrian king by the name of Sargon was found in Isaiah 20:1. It was therefore assumed that no such king existed and that the writer had made up the name. In 1843 Paul-Emil Botta, the French vice-consul and archaeologist in Mosul (northern Iraq), uncovered the great city of Khorsabad, and Sharru-kin (Sargon) is now one of the best known Assyrian kings in the ancient world.
Be Patient, Herr Hitzig
In 1850 German scholar Ferdinand Hitzig wrote a commentary on the book of Daniel and boldly declared that Belshazzar was “a figment of the writer’s imagination.”9 Hitzig’s reasoning was that the only references in known history to a king called Belshazzar were found in the book of Daniel.
Four years later, the British Consul in Basra, J. E. Taylor, discovered four identical time capsules from building works of King Nabonidus of Babylon in which he offers a prayer for himself and “Belshazzar my firstborn son, the offspring of my heart.” Today, no one doubts the existence of Belshazzar.
Some archaeological discoveries may appear to clash with the biblical record. Yet conclusive archaeology consistently confirms the Bible. For example, evidence of the conquest of Canaan in the time of Joshua is slowly coming to light.10 Also, the absence of evidence of the Hebrews in the land of Goshen has been answered by the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, who asks what evidence we would expect to find from a people who, 3,500 years ago, lived in mud brick houses in an area frequently flooded. In fact, virtually all Egypt’s administrative records of the Delta area have been lost.11
On the other hand, a comparison of the names of foreign kings known from inscriptions and those in the Bible is “impeccably accurate.”12 In brief, it is simply false to claim that “archaeology disproves the Bible” when every year something new is turned up out of the ground that authenticates the biblical record. While there are still some unresolved issues, nothing in archaeology contradicts the Bible.
The Big Picture
Oxford lecturer Richard Dawkins dismissed the Bible as “a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents.”13 Any well taught Bible student will know that far from being “chaotically cobbled-together,” one of the hallmarks of the Bible as a trustworthy book is its progressive unfolding of one great theme from beginning to end.
One of the hallmarks of the Bible as a trustworthy book is its progressive unfolding of one great theme from beginning to end.
We know the second part of the Bible focuses on Jesus Christ, but it is not always appreciated that the first part of the Bible is also consistently about Christ. While the Old Testament explores many subjects, the grand theme is Christ. Jesus called attention to the numerous Old Testament passages that spoke of Him (Luke 24:27, 44).
The first reference to Christ is made to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Shortly after they fell, God promised that the day would come when the offspring of a woman would crush Satan (Genesis 3:15). The whole of the Old Testament nudges history closer to the fulfillment of that promise. We have no space here to explore this in detail,14 but the record of Noah and the Flood, the life of Abraham and the patriarchs, the accounts of Joseph and Israel in Egypt, the Exodus, Sinai and the moral and ceremonial law under Moses, the monarchy from Saul to Zedekiah, and all the prophets in between, nudge the big picture forward until the climax: “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son” (Galatians 4:4). Every book, even the small ones like Ruth and Esther, plays its part in the big picture.
This perfect harmony of the 39 books in the Old Testament is as unique as it is remarkable and stands as one of the great witnesses to the divine authorship, not only of the books, but of the record they relate.
What the Wise Men Say
Many able archaeologists and Old Testament scholars, both past and present, have accepted the historical accuracy of the Old Testament record.
Robert Dick Wilson was Professor of Semitic Philology at Princeton Theological Seminary during the 1920s. His knowledge of languages (he learned 26 languages, both ancient and modern) was phenomenal and his understanding of the biblical text equally so. He concluded, “No man knows enough to assail the truthfulness of the Old Testament. . . . I try to give my students such an intelligent faith in the Old Testament Scriptures that they will never doubt them as long as they live.”15
Kenneth Kitchen, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics, and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool, England, has made the point that in the ancient world, “people did not write ‘historical novels’ with authentic research . . . in Near Eastern antiquity, as we do today.”16
James Hoffmeier, Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, while borrowing a phrase from his mentor Alfred Hoerth that archaeology “improves” rather than “proves” the Bible, nevertheless rigorously defends the historical accuracy of the Old Testament.17
Donald J. Wiseman, who, until his death in 2009, was Professor Emeritus of Assyriology at the University of London, has claimed that archaeology, “correctly understood, always confirms the accuracy of the Bible.”18
Alan Millard, Rankin Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool, wisely reminds us that archaeology can never prove or disprove the important message of the Bible, but it does “provide a good basis for a positive approach to the biblical records” and thus “enable its distinctive religious message to stand out more boldly.”19
While archaeology can never “prove the Bible true” in that the Bible’s most important message is about God’s promise of the Savior Jesus Christ, the accuracy of its historical data confirms the integrity of its message.