October 2017           "A Journal of Biblical Understanding"           Volume 14           

(Daniel 4:25)
" ... and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will."


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Is the New Testament a Fraud?

The Da Vinci Code and similar works have portrayed the formation of the New Testament as "history's greatest cover-up." Is it part of a conspiracy to deceive humanity, or is it the divinely inspired, true and accurate picture of what Jesus and His apostles said and did in the first century?

The Da Vinci Code book and movie, as well as other similar works, have raised many questions about the early Church. For example, Princeton University religion professor Elaine Pagels recently stated: "What I find interesting about [The Da Vinci Code] is that it raises a very important question. If they—meaning the leaders of the Church—suppressed so much of early Christian history, what else don't we know about? . . . I think it's a really important question because the answer means a great deal" (Secrets of the Da Vinci Code, U.S. News and World Report special edition, 2006, p. 36).

Why such public interest?

Why have readers and moviegoers taken this work of fiction as seriously as if it were nonfiction? Why have the book and film captured the imagination of the general public? Yes, the book is a "good read" and the film features Hollywood favorite Tom Hanks in the leading role. But is there something far more significant behind the obvious reasons?

Noted Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips put her finger on a point we should not overlook. In unraveling its fictional mystery, the book takes advantage of our built-in inclination to want to discover the true meaning of life. As Ms. Phillips puts it, "There is a profound spiritual hunger in the Western world which, for a variety of reasons, the Church is no longer able to assuage" (April 10).

As the years whip by and we go about fulfilling our routine day-to-day duties in a continual cycle, it's natural for us to begin to wonder somewhere along the way if there is any real meaning to life. Ms. Phillips goes on to say: "This quest for meaning furnishes the never-ending popular desire to know whether or not the Bible was true."

The trouble is, so many people never seem to get around to reading and studying the Bible for themselves. Instead, too many put their trust in what movies, other books, academics, politicians and other supposed experts say about the Bible. Often the supposed experts today have never read or studied it either. So we should never consign this supremely important task to others! (see Acts 17:11).

Why not blow the dust off your Bible and begin to read and study its contents for yourself?

What the Bible says about itself

Since The Da Vinci Code questions accepted events in the biblical world of the first century, this article will concentrate on the credibility of the New Testament. Yet the Old Testament does bear heavily on the accuracy of the New.

Fully one third of the New Testament consists of quotations from or allusions to passages in the Old Testament. The New Testament mentions the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies including those concerning the birth, ministry, messiah-ship and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself, referring to the Old Testament—the only "Bible" available at the time—stated that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35).

It's interesting to note that the Old Testament nowhere foretells a human marriage of the Messiah to come, yet many other aspects of His life are clearly prophesied (compare Luke 24:25-26).

The Jewish community was entrusted "with the very words of God" (Romans 3:2, New International Version). Its official representatives of Jesus' day bore responsibility in religious matters (Matthew 23:2-3) until the time that "the kingdom of God [would] be taken away from [them] and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43)—a reference to the New Testament Church of God (compare 1 Peter 2:9-10). Jesus would shortly build and establish His Church through His chosen apostles (Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18).

In due time they would record their experiences in what would become the New Testament.

The apostles and the New Testament canon

Since The Da Vinci Code controversy revolves around questioning the truth and accuracy of the New Testament, we need to understand how the books were selected.

Which books were inspired by God to be a part of His Word?

Our English term "canon" is an anglicized form of the Greek word kanon, meaning a rod or ruler.

The Bible could not be canonized without proper standards.

The New Testament itself shows that the apostles themselves participated in the beginnings of this process to a much greater extent than is generally believed.

The apostle Paul tells us that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles (who authored most of the books of the New Testament) and the prophets (who authored the books of the Old Testament), with Jesus being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

Jesus gave a major role in the formation and teachings of the Church to the apostles, telling them,

"Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18).

Peter's contribution to canonicity

Near the time of Peter's martyrdom, he became even more deeply concerned about the preservation of the apostles' teaching.

"For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent [body], to stir you up by reminding you" (2 Peter 1:12-13, emphasis added throughout).

Now carefully consider the key passage that follows in verse 15:

"Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease."

How could this possibly be accomplished except by deliberate preservation of a written work?

Then he continues the theme of reminding the brethren of basic doctrinal truth in chapter 3:

"Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the Holy Prophets [in the Old Testament], and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior [the beginnings of the New Testament]" (2 Peter 3:1-2).

Peter's closing words make it clear that he fully realized what constituted written Scripture up to that time, and it was not just the Old Testament:

 "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (verses 15-16, NIV).

Thus, Peter obviously equated the apostle Paul's letters with Scripture—and not only that, but the clear implication is that these letters most probably already existed in a copied, collected, and distributed form.

Perhaps they were even in Peter's hands as he wrote these words. Peter's two letters were written to "God's elect, . . . scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1, NIV; compare 2 Peter 3:1).

Except for Galatia, these are not exactly the same places that Paul originally addressed most of his letters to. Yet the clear implication of the concluding verses of Peter's second epistle is that Paul's letters (again, most likely in a collected form) were by then reaching the same places to which Peter was writing.

 Paul's contribution to canonicity

Consider the circumstances in Paul's second and final letter to Timothy just prior to martyrdom.

"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure [death] is at hand"             (2 Timothy 4:6).

Among his final instructions to the young evangelist were:

"Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments" (verse 13).

The late British scholar F.F. Bruce commented on this passage:

"What the parchments were which Paul so anxiously desired Timothy to bring we cannot be sure, but it is a reasonable guess that they contained portions of Holy Scripture" (The Books and the Parchments, 1963, p. 12).

 Surely copies of Paul's own letters would have been included as well. He was a literary man who wrote many letters, some of which were not included in the New Testament canon. Since he wrote this final letter to Timothy under the pressure of imminent execution, it is inconceivable to think that Paul would not have taken steps to see that his letters would be preserved for future generations of the Church.

Some have even pointed out that the "cloak" Paul mentions is likely not a reference to an item of clothing to keep him warm, but rather a cover or folder in which the parchments were held. The Greek word could denote either. In English, we have the similar term "jacket," which can apply to either a coat or a book cover.

Paul's letters, it should be noted, provide an early witness to Christ's teachings. Much has been made of the supposed time gap of 40 and more years between Christ's preaching and the time the Gospel accounts were written.

N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham in the Anglican Church, comments:

 "Scholars used to be quite dogmatic on the dating of the gospels, but the more scholarship has gone on the less we can be as sure as we thought. What is more, the gospels are dependent in turn on traditions that are very early indeed . . . "The once-fashionable scholarly tradition of pushing the gospels later and later and regarding their contents with more and more scepticism has been radically undermined from several angles" (Decoding Da Vinci, 2006, p. 18).

The witness of Paul to some of the major events has been overlooked in contemplating the usual time scenario. Some scholars estimate that Paul began writing letters less than 20 years after Christ's crucifixion. Some date Galatians, thought to be his first letter, as early as A.D. 48—only 17 years after Jesus' death and resurrection. Since Paul's letters rarely quote from the four Gospel accounts or other New Testament books (1 Timothy 5:18 quotes Luke 10:7), most of his letters apparently predate these other New Testament writings. Yet Paul's letters clearly corroborate the message of the four Gospels.

For example, his letters reveal that before Christ was betrayed, He instituted the New Testament Passover ceremony with the new symbols of bread and wine (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) and witnessed a good testimony before Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13).

Paul also confirmed that Christ died by crucifixion, was buried and rose again by a resurrection from the dead (Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5; Philippians 2:8)—after which He ascended into heaven (Ephesians 4:9-10).

John's final Gospel and Revelation

Clearly both Peter and Paul, who died around A.D. 67-68, were martyred before the final books of the New Testament were composed. However, the resurrected, living Jesus Christ made sure one key apostle would remain alive to complete the New Testament. Apparently primarily for this reason, John would outlive Peter (John 21:18-23).

The full understanding of the gospel and "things to come" had not yet been revealed (John 16:13). The Gospel of John, the book of Revelation and perhaps the letters of 1, 2 and 3 John were yet to be written.

Notice F.F. Bruce's assessment:

"Towards the end of the century, John, perhaps the last surviving companion of Jesus in the days of His flesh, records his reminiscences of his Master's life and teaching, together with his meditations on them, in such a way as to supplement the earlier gospels" (p. 107).

This explains why his Gospel is so different from the other three.

Writing much later, John was in many respects filling in the gaps, so to speak. John himself comments as an early eyewitness near the conclusion of his Gospel:

"And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31).

Then at the very end of the book he repeats his personal testimony as an eyewitness.

"This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we [plural, meaning other Church members] know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24; compare 1 John 1:1-3).

Further, John is specifically told by Jesus to write the book of Revelation, what to include in it and to whom it was to be sent (Revelation 1:9-11). It is "the Revelation of Jesus Christ," which God the Father imparted to Him (verse 1).

Christ personally revealed it to the apostle John.

Its conclusion includes a severe warning to those who would either add to or take away from this final book of the New Testament (Revelation 22:18).

The book thus has a ring of finality to it, and in principle its warning certainly applies to the entire Bible.

God's Word must be respected (Isaiah 66:2; Proverbs 30:5-6).

Sound scholarly testimony

Guiding His apostles and their successors, why did Jesus Christ include certain books and not others? What has been called "apostolicity" is the major standard. Each and every New Testament book was either composed by an apostle of Christ or a very few close associates.

"So we find Mark, the companion and interpreter of Peter, committing to writing . . . the Gospel as Peter habitually proclaimed it . . . and Luke, the companion of Paul, writes in two books [Luke and Acts] for Gentile readers a narrative for the beginnings of Christianity from the birth of John the Baptist up to Paul's two year residence in Rome" (Bruce, p. 107).

Dr. Peter Head is the Sir Kirby Laing research fellow at Tyndale House in Cambridge. In addition to his research activities, he teaches the New Testament in the Faculty of Divinity.

He categorically states:

"None of the non-canonical gospels offer any independent information about Jesus which is of any substance . . . Our conclusion must be that there are no realistic alternatives to our four gospels if we are looking for historical information about Jesus" ( Is the New Testament Reliable?, 2003, p. 17).

Luke was not only a physician (Colossians 4:14), but also a scholarly and highly skilled historian who wrote both his own Gospel account and the book of Acts.

Notice that he prefaces his Gospel account with an explanation of his careful and methodical approach to the task:

"Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed" (Luke 1:1-4).

Is the Bible believable?

The late professor F.F. Bruce was a highly competent Bible scholar who primarily focused his lifelong studies on the New Testament.

He wrote in the preface to the fifth edition of The New Testament Documents:

Are They Reliable?: "The grounds for accepting the New Testament as trustworthy compare very favourably with the grounds on which classical students accepted the authenticity and credibility of many ancient documents" (1975, p. 5). Later in this book he continued: "The evidence of our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning" (p. 15).

Dr. Peter Head concurs with F.F. Bruce's testimony:

"The wealth of material undergirding the text of the New Testament becomes overwhelming . . . Documentary evidence for the New Testament is much stronger than for any comparable works from the ancient world" (Is the New Testament Reliable?, pp. 8, 10).

The biblical record is supported in many small details by archaeological finds. Inscriptions, seals, tombs, historical records and other artifacts verify the existence of almost 70 individuals listed in the Bible, many of whom are mentioned only in passing. Countless other discoveries such as cities, towns, customs and titles of government officials have been discovered that bear witness to the fact that the books of the Bible were indeed written when they claim to have been.

(A compilation of 24 Good News articles titled "The Bible and Archaeology" may be downloaded at www.gnmagazine.org/archaeology.)

William Ramsay is one noted scholar who initially dismissed the New Testament as a historical fabrication. The young Oxford graduate had been taught by his professors that the Bible was written much later than it claimed to be and thus shouldn't be taken seriously. But after years of study and travel in the Holy Land and Asia Minor trying to disprove Scripture, Ramsay came to an inescapable conclusion: The New Testament narrative "showed marvelous truth."

Over his long academic career Ramsay was honored with doctorates from nine universities and eventually knighted for his contributions to scholarship. At one point he shocked the academic world by announcing that the incontrovertible evidence he had discovered over his years of study compelled him to become a Christian.

He went on to write several books that are considered classic works on New Testament history. A ring of truth In the words of another highly respected Greek and biblical scholar, William Barclay:

 "Without question the books which are Scripture and which are truly the word of God have about them a self-evidencing quality. They carry their uniqueness on their face. To read them is to be conscious of being brought into the presence of God and truth and Jesus Christ in a unique way" (The Making of the Bible, 1961, p. 74).

That is one reason it is so important to read and study the Bible for yourself! GN

 

(Reprinted with permission of the United Church of God, an International Association. This article is part of a magazine titled “The Good News” and is not to be sold. It is a free educational service in the public interest. Published by United Church of God, an International Association, P.O. Box 541027, Cincinnati, OH 45254-1027. (c)2001 United Church of God. Visit the United Church of God on the Internet at www.ucg.org.)

 

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