This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
Myth #1: The text and translation of the Bible is completely unreliable.
In a Newsweek article a few years back, the author claimed, “No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.”
I hope this is hyperbole, because I don’t understand how a journalist could publish this. He is saying that the best we can hope to find is a translation of a translation of a translation. I think he means that our modern English translations of the New Testament are translations of a Latin translation that was a translation of the original Greek. I can’t speak for televisions preachers, evangelical politicians, or the pope, but I know that I have many students and colleagues who read the Greek New Testament quite often and quite well. And what we’ve found is that our English translations—the ESV, the NIV, the NASB and many more—are very reliable translations.
But some might say even if we can translate the Bible, we can never know what the original wording was. After all, the text of the Bible was copied by hand over thousands of years by thousands of people who made tens or even hundreds of thousands of intentional and unintentional mistakes.
It is true that until the 15th Century, the text of the Bible was copied by hand and sometimes scribes made mistakes. But this does not mean the text we have is nothing close to the original writings and completely unreliable. In fact, it is just the opposite, especially when we compare it with other ancient texts. We have over 6,000 manuscripts of the Greek NT (not to mention close to 20,000 ancient translations).
Of the 6,000 Greek manuscripts, the evidence of their contradictions has been greatly exaggerated. While there are many variations in the text, most of these are either spelling differences or word order. There are several other differences that do not change the meaning of the text at all, especially the use of synonyms. Less than 1% of the variants amount to a meaningful change, and none of these affect any essential Christian doctrine. None of this even considers the tens of thousands of Hebrew Old Testament scrolls and codices that show a similar level of reliability. The evidence is clear: our modern English translations are reliable translations of a reliable text.
The Bible tells one story of the one God who is redeeming one people in his one creation through the one Savior Jesus Christ.
Myth #2: The books of the Bible were arbitrarily chosen.
I’ll call this second myth The DaVinci Code myth (even though the first myth showed up in that book as well). The story goes something like this: during the first two centuries AD, there were hundreds of Christian documents being used in churches. Books like the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Peter, and even the Gospel of Judas were read alongside Matthew, Romans, Revelation, and the rest of the NT books. It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the early 4th century that we narrowed the list down to our twenty-seven NT books. In the DaVinci Code, Dan Brown has one of his characters describe what happened next. “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.” When asked who decided which Gospels to include, he replied, “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” Even though these claims are a little grandiose in Brown’s book, many people believe some version of this today.
It is true that the early Christians wrote dozens, maybe hundreds, or documents in the first two or three centuries AD. It is also true that the NT canon was debated until around the time of Emperor Constantine. But that is about as much as The DaVinci Code gets right. But Christians were never considering eighty Gospels; in fact, the four Gospels we have in the NT were the only Gospels that Christians seriously considered for inclusion in the canon of the NT. They are by far the earliest Gospels, they have the most links to the apostles, and they were universally accepted by the church from the beginning. The Gospel of Thomas is probably the earliest of these other “Gospels,” but it was probably written somewhere around 150–180 AD. The NT Gospels were written around 60–100 AD, in the lifetimes of the apostles.
The same could be said about the other NT books. While it took some time for the twenty-seven books of the NT to be universally recognized by the early Christian church, there is no evidence from anywhere that suggests Constantine had any influence about which books were chosen.
Myth #3: The Bible is scientifically ignorant and unreliable.
Even many Christians believe some version of this myth. They will say that the Bible intends to teach late-Bronze age or Ancient Near Eastern scientific theories. We cannot trust a book that is so misinformed about science, right?
The problem here is when people assume that the Bible is intending to be scientific textbook that does not use normal language. I recently read someone accusing the Bible of a scientific error because it describes the circular bronze Sea in the temple with a circumference of 30 cubits and a diameter of 10 cubits (1 Kings 7:23-24). This would make the value of pi 3.0 instead of 3.14. Others say the Bible teaches a geocentric universe because Ecclesiastes 1:5 says that the sun rises and sets. This demands a level of precision in language that we do not use in normal conversation.
If I told you that sun is setting at 6:45pm, would you accuse me of being a heliocentrist and scientifically ignorant? It is true that the sun is not actually setting at 6:45 pm. The earth is rotating on its axis to the east so we will move out of range of the sun’s light. But if I talked about the earth is rotating out of range of the sun’s light at 6:45 pm instead of just saying the sun is setting, you’d think I was a little off. So the Bible uses normal human language to describe scientific phenomena, just like you and I do. To apply a different standard to the Bible is unfair and doesn’t hold up to the way language actually works.
Even though questions about the age of the earth and the details of creation are a little different, and Christians disagree about how best to interpret these chapters, even Genesis 1-2 is not intending to teach us a detailed scientific account of how the universe began. Instead, it uses normal human language to teach us about God’s power over his creation from the very beginning. When read in this way, none of the so-called scientific mistakes in the Bible amounts to a serious challenge to its absolute truthfulness and authority.
Myth #4: The Bible is misogynistic.
Many people assume that in the Greco-Roman world, women were treated with honor, respect, and dignity until Christianity came along and messed everything up because the Bible teaches us to mistreat women. But this fails to understand what the Bible actually teaches about women. It is true that God also designed men and women to fulfill different roles and responsibilities in some areas, like the home and the church. But different does not mean unequal.
Many people have twisted Scripture to oppress women, but this is a failure to understand both what the Bible teaches about women and how God has designed men and women to relate to each other. From the very beginning, the Scripture is clear. Both men and women are created together in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). Although women were consistently mistreated and abused in the Ancient Near East, the OT is full of stories of women of faith, like Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2), wise and courageous women, like Deborah (Judges 4) and Abigail (1 Samuel 25), and women who saved God’s people from destruction (Esther). In a world where women were hardly ever seen as anything more than property to serve men, the Bible’s view of women who are made in the image of God and used by him to accomplish his purposes is remarkable.
The NT only makes this picture clearer. Jesus treated women with dignity, love, and respect, even when they were shamed by the culture they lived in (John 4; Luke 7:36-50). While he certainly called women to repent of their sins, he did not leave them in their sin, but saw them as God’s image-bearers who are to be loved and honored. Throughout the rest of the NT, we see women playing key roles in evangelism and teaching, like Priscilla (Acts 18:24-26), church planting, like Lydia (Acts 16), and prayer, like Mary, the mother of John (Acts 12:12). Women were important co-laborers with Paul and the other apostles (Romans 16:17).
Myth #5: The Bible is a random collection of disconnected stories and inconsistent ideas.
Imagine if we took a legal document written in 1718, a collection of poems from 1818, a biography written in 1918, and finally a historical narrative written in 2018, and tried to make a it tell a coherent story. It would be difficult, right? This is how many people conceive of the Bible. It was written over thousands of years by dozens of people in several different cultures and languages. How could this book tell a coherent story?
But consider how the “offspring” unfolds throughout the Bible. Genesis 3:15 speaks of the “offspring” of Eve who would one day crush the head of the serpent, the devil. God promises Abraham, the descendent of Eve, that he would give certain promises to his offspring (Gen 12:1-3; 17:7) and Abraham’s great-grandson Judah received a promise that his offspring would rule over the nations. Centuries later, God told King David that his offspring would rule over a kingdom that would never end (2 Samuel 7:13). Centuries still after that, the prophet Isaiah spoke of the offspring of the virgin, who would rise up to rule over the nations (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6). When we get to the New Testament, we discover that the offspring of Eve, who is the offspring of Abraham (Galatians 3:16) is also the royal son of Judah and David (Romans 1:3-4). Finally, in a symbolic picture of the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, a dragon, the “ancient serpent” tries to destroy the offspring of the woman, but he defeated the dragon and his allies once and for all (Revelation 12).
This is just one theme of many that we can trace through the story of the Bible. There are layers of themes that tie in this big story in a remarkable way. Some parts may have different emphases and different authors have different styles, and the story develops between the old and new covenants. But the story and details of the Bible are unified in amazing ways. The Bible tells one story of the one God who is redeeming one people in his one creation through the one Savior Jesus Christ. The unity of the Bible is breathtakingly joyous.
If this were any other book, I’d be hard-pressed to explain its consistency and depth. How could a book written in such a diverse way have such a remarkable unity? The only answer we can give is the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Christians throughout the centuries have confessed that this is no ordinary book. It is the very word of the living God. But he has revealed himself in this book, and we would be wise to read it, understand it, submit to it, and so be transformed by the gospel message it proclaims.