Lets Get Scientific About the Bible.
Western scientific method has helped transform the world. One aspect of it is forming a hypothesis and then testing that hypothesis against reality, often by using the hypothesis to predict what should happen if the hypothesis is correct and then doing the experiment to see if in fact that does happen.
Can we apply this technique to investigate the claims of the Bible?
The reason I want to use this technique to check out the Bible is this: Readers brought up in our “post Christian” era probably don't think the Bible is worth a second look. I can't blame them. Even many churches act as though it isn't ! I'll tell you two experiences of mine which illustrate this.
When I came back to Christianity in my early twenties I thought I should read some books about it. Naturally I wanted to pick ones which had something to say, so I chose ones where the author had a long string of university degrees after their name! Big mistake! The more impressive their list of academic qualifications the less they seemed to believe anything. Not the Bible, not the historic Christian faith, not that Jesus was God, not heaven ….. and so on. I ended up nearly becoming a church-going atheist! Mercifully God took a hand and got me sorted out again. But I can understand people who have been interested in Christianity and tried to find out about it and have encountered that sort of thing being convinced that there is nothing worth their while looking at there.
Many years later as an Anglican priest I went to some clergy gatherings. One incident is burned into my mind. I was discussing some point with one – who was a former Catholic priest – and I quoted some words of Jesus from John's Gospel. Quick as a flash he came back: “Oh, Jesus didn't say that! Those were just words put into “Jesus” mouth by the early Christian community who wrote 'John'.” I was so flabbergasted I couldn't answer! Anyone who has heard rubbish like that from priests and ministers (and it is a common school of thought) would undoubtedly think: “If not even religious professionals believe the Bible is anything, why should I believe it!”
Interesting aside: There is a quirky twist to this phenomenon! I have come across many, many ministers from the “liberal” end of the church spectrum who say they don't believe Jesus actually said this or that thing: but, and this is the weird bit, they obey the command just the same!
Conversely I have come across many, many ministers from the evangelical end of the spectrum who proclaim very loudly that the Bible is “The Word of God” but do not obey what it commands.
Again I have heard pentecostal platform speakers who begin by proclaiming something like “I stand on the Bible” - generally whilst flourishing a large copy over their heads. They then proceed to use it merely as a grab bag of mis-quotes to bolster a message which is the very opposite of what the Bible actually teaches from cover to cover. They have often provoked in me the thought : “If you really believed that the Bible was from God you wouldn't dare treat it like that!” Of course it is possible this sort don't actually believe in God as such, just the gods of Money, Fame and maybe their own Ego!
With this behavior is it any wonder people are skeptical of the Bible or reject religion altogether.
So in the remainder of this section I want to treat the Bible's claims as we would a scientific hypothesis and see where we get to.
For this scientific test I want to make as my starting hypothesis that there is a God who made this universe who is not some impersonal “force” but is possessed faculties such as character, will, intelligence and so forth that we humans are familiar with as constituting a “person”.
Then I want to use this hypothesis to make a prediction we can test. (of course, as in science a positive result does not prove the hypothesis, it just keeps it in play!)
So we have (in our hypothesis) that there is a God who was responsible for creating the universe, including our nicely habitable little planet. Responsible also for plant and animal life including us humans. This God is, we hypothesize, possessed of intelligence, will, and some of the other faculties we (rightly or wrongly – ask any cat or dog lover!) say distinguish humans as a higher form of life from other animals.
What could we predict?
Well. I think one fair prediction is that this God would want to communicate with the intelligent life forms they had created – especially the highest: humans.
1. Given we suppose God is at the very least as intelligent as we are, they would not want to “reinvent the wheel” so to speak for every generation. So once these humans had writing I would predict that God would have some people they interacted with write down useful information for succeeding generations.
2. Given that even us humans know messages need to be transmitted more than once to ensure accuracy I would predict multiple, different-but-saying-the-same-thing documents. On this, every parent knows they have to repeat instructions several times! Every teacher knows that different students learn best in different ways (visual, auditory, tactile, conceptual, concrete example, and so on) so that they repeat the thing they want to teach over and over in different forms to get through to the different styles of learning. Communications engineers have long practiced multiple sampling to improve reliability. So I would be looking for, not just one writer's work but a compendium of many different authors using many different styles and approaches but giving a consistent content.
3. I would also expect God to know that there are many human languages, and that language changes over time. So I would expect this communication to be robust enough that it can be translated without losing the essential points. I would also expect a conscientious God to preserve at least either near-to-the-original documents or a relatively robust “chain of custody” of documents in their original languages so that translators and readers can be confident they have “the real thing”.
4. Given that even we humans know that stories are very effective teaching tools – they say even very young children are adept at appropriating the “moral” from a story. I would expect this compendium to include lots of stories. Both since, as the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction and because an account of something that really happened and the good or bad result that followed is much more persuasive that a made-up story: I would expect a lot of these stories to be real-life events.
So is there anything which fits this prediction?
There are in the world lots of religions, but once we start looking for a written compendium which at least claims to be a record of God (or the gods) communicating with the human race, the list thins out!
The Qur'an of course claims this, but only has a singly author: Mohamed. I realize that there are millions of Muslims who devoutly believe he was The Prophet, however for the reasons given above, I would respectfully dismiss its claims if I found something which better fulfilled the hypothesis existed.
The Bible: how does it stack up?
1. The claim to be God communicating with humans.
The books of the various prophets in the old Testament – 16 or so – make this claim the most boldly. They claim that what they had recorded was messages from God. Often the individual message-bites contain “this is what YHWH says” or even use first person speech by God.
Just one example: Malachi begins: “A prophecy: the word of YHWH to Israel through Malachi.”
Come to the New Testament: Jesus is the key figure, what does he claim? Of course he claims to be God. But for his teachings he claims firstly that it is exactly what God said through the Old Testament prophets. He even quotes a passage from Genesis and prefaces it “God said ...” Secondly he claims his teaching has God-the-Father's authority:
eg John 12:49 “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”
The New Testament letters re-iterate the claims of the Old made by the Old
eg 2 Peter 1:20 “Above all you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation of things, for prophecy never had its origin in the human will but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Revelation begins: “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw...”
This is only the briefest of sketches, there is much much more where these examples came from! However it is sufficient I hope to illustrate that what we call the Bible – an anthology of 66 “books” by many different authors spanning from the 14th century B.C. to the 1st possibly 2nd century A.D. and incorporating material for maybe as early as 25th century B.C. definitely makes the claim to be God creating a repository of communications with the human race.
Next I will look at whether this anthology gives consistent teaching over the 66 books, numerous authors and time span of more than 1,400 years.