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Who wrote the Bible and why is it called ‘the Word of God’?
A biblical perspective:
Christians believe that the Bible is ‘the word of God’ because it originates with God. About 37 different human authors wrote the Bible, each in their own distinctive style. But God guided their writing so that, what they freely wrote was exactly what God wanted them to write. That is why Jesus called the Bible “the word of God” (John 10:35).
- The Bible was 100% written by people. The Bible was written by about 37 different authors with very diverse backgrounds. Some of these authors were Moses, Jeremiah, Daniel, Luke, John and Paul, to name just a few. Some of these writers were kings, some were shepherds, some priests and some prophets. One was a doctor and one was a tent maker. Most of these people lived in Israel but some had spent time living in other places like Egypt, Greece, Arabia and Babylon. Their writings spanned approximately 1600 years—so the production of the Bible was very much a process over a long period of time.
- The Bible was 100% written by God. The Bible makes the extraordinary claim—over 3000 times!—that it is the actual words of God himself. For example, phrases like “the LORD said to me” (Jeremiah 1:7), “the word of the LORD came to me” (Jeremiah 2:1) and “this is what the LORD says” (Jeremiah 2:5) are found repeatedly throughout the Bible. What this means is that, although certain people wrote the Bible, God also wrote the Bible. It was written 100% by people—and at the same time—100% by God! Quite a claim!
- The Bible claims that God ‘breathed out’ its words. The Bible calls itself “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16)—a rather vivid expression meaning that God ‘breathed out’ all the words of the Bible!
How does the Bible explain how this could happen? In 2 Peter 1:21, it says, “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”. Now, what could this possibly mean?
Here’s an illustration that might help. A sailing ship is carried along as the wind blows into its sails. So, what’s driving the boat—the wind or the sailors? The answer is both. The wind is powering the boat but, unless the sailors raise the sails and steer the boat, it won’t be going anywhere. Both the wind and the sailors are necessary for the boat to sail. This is a picture of what the Bible means when it says God ‘breathed out’ its words—men were “carried along” by God, meaning that God guided the writers of the Bible so they would write exactly what God wanted them to write (2 Peter 1:21).
Each author used their own style of writing when they wrote their part of the Bible so that, at the same time, the words in the Bible are both 100% the human authors’ words and 100 God’s words. Like we said, an incredible claim!
Aren’t there errors and contradictions in the Bible?
If it’s true that the Bible came from God (see Q 1 above), then since God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) it must be that the original writings of the Bible didn’t have any errors or contradictions.
The Bible of today is a thoroughly reliable copy of those original writings. In the process of copying the biblical documents, some copyist errors have been made but these are: (1) few; (2) not significant; and (3) do not affect the message of the Bible at all.
- The accuracy of the original writings.a. God always tells the truth. The Bible claims that there are some things that God can’t do. Lying or giving false information is one of those things (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18)! And even more, the Bible also claims that God is perfect. For example, 2 Samuel 22:31 reads—“As for God, his way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless”. This means everything God says is true and without error.b. The Bible came from God. The Bible claims that the words of the Bible (i.e. the original writings) came from God (2 Timothy 3:16), so it calls the Bible ‘God’s word’ (John 10:35; cf. Mark 7:13; Romans 9:6; Hebrews 4:12). See Q 1 above.c. If (a) God is true, and (b) if the Bible came from God, then it must be true and free from all error. If (a) and (b) are both true, then this seems the only possible conclusion we can make.
- Copyist errors. As the originals were copied and then as those copies were re-copied, some small errors were made. These errors are to be expected since: (1) the copyists were only human; and (2) God ‘breathed out’ the original writings, not the copies. But thankfully these copyist errors are:a. Few in number. The scribes who copied the biblical writings worked under careful scrutiny—they believed that their task was sacred and serious (image if you thought you were copying the words that God ‘breathed out’!) and so they gave great attention to detail. And especially with the scribes who copied the Old Testament, there were severe consequences for scribes who made errors. Therefore, mistakes were kept to an absolute minimum.b. Minor in nature. Any errors usually involved names, numbers, or things like changing the tense of a verb, making them minor in nature.c. Not significant in effect. Because the copyists’ errors were few in number and minor in nature, they do not affect the total message (i.e. the teachings) of the Bible. The Christian message remains the same as it was in the original writings, despite these few copyist errors. “So, for all practical purposes, the Bible in our hand, imperfect though the [copies] are, conveys the complete truth of the original Word of God.”1 By comparing ancient copies of the Bible, scholars have confirmed that we can be 98.0% to 99.9% sure of every word of the original writing of the Bible.2
For more information about how the Bible was copied, see the questions, Lost in transmission? and, Lost in transmission? The Dead Sea Scrolls, below.
- Alleged ‘contradictions’ are only apparent contradictions. On closer examination, apparent contradictions are not contradictions at all. For instance, in Mark 10:46–52, it says Jesus healed a (i.e. ‘one’) blind man (Bartimaeus) outside the city of Jericho but, in the parallel passage in Matthew 20:29–34, it says Jesus healed two blind men. This appears to be a contradiction until we remember it would be a contradiction if Mark had said there was only one blind man healed. It could be that Mark had known one of the blind men personally (Bartimaeus) and chose to relate only his story. But there is no contradiction… if there were two blind men, we can be sure there was one!
- Norman L. Geisler and Thomas A. Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992), 24.
- Norman L. Geisler, “Updating the Manuscript Evidence for the New Testament”, normangeisler.net, September 2013,
<http://normangeisler.net/articles/Bible/Reliability/Norman%20Geisler%20-%20Updating%20the%20Manuscript%20Evidence%20for%20the%20New%20Testament.pdf> (17 February 2014).
Why are modern translations of the Bible necessary? Are they accurate or has the meaning been changed by endless translations down through the ages?
Because languages are constantly changing, new translations of the Bible are always necessary. The meaning of a certain word today may be very different from the meaning that word had even 50 years ago. So we need fresh translations into our modern language.
Modern Bible translations are translated not from previous translations but from ancient copies of the original writings. By comparing the many ancient copies and working from them, scholars and translators are able to give us the Bible in our modern languages.
Some have tried to say that our modern Bibles are just translations—of translations—and that, consequently, the true meaning of the original text of Scripture has been lost in the process. This would be a great shame—we couldn’t know what the original biblical writings were! But thankfully this isn’t the case. The following points need to be kept in mind:
- Translations are not taken from earlier translations, as if each translation just tweaks the language from one version to another. Each translation is made from the numerous ancient Old Testament and New Testament documents available.
- The Old Testament was accurately copied. In March 1947, some Arab shepherds exploring caves in the Qumran Valley in Israel (close to the Dead Sea) made one of the most astonishing discoveries in modern archaeological history. Among the 11 caves they explored, they found about 800 ancient scrolls thought by many to have been written by the Essenes (a Jewish religious group)—and 200 of these scrolls relate to the Old Testament.These scrolls have been dated and are said to have been written approximately 1000 years earlier than the oldest Old Testament manuscripts that scholars were using. Amazingly, these scrolls were virtually identical to the later Old Testament copies that were available—showing that nothing had been lost in the copying process. This was a huge affirmation of the accuracy of our Old Testament text.
- Translation accuracy is increasing. Dr Daniel B Wallace (professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary and founder and executive director of the Centre for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, USA) reminds us that, when producing the King James Version of the New Testament (1611), translators used essentially seven manuscripts dating no earlier than the 11th century AD. Nowadays we have approximately 5800 manuscripts of the New Testament dating from as early as the second century AD. This means that we are actually moving closer to the originals—not farther away.
- Translations have always been made from ancient biblical writings. While we don’t have the original writings of the Bible, we do have many thousands of ancient copies. As translators compare the various copies and the differences between them—differences which are very minor—they make decisions on how to translate the variant reading by applying two tests:a. The external test. The copies themselves are assessed—the nature of each copy, its age and the way it was used by the early Church.b. The internal test. Here, translators look at two things:i. The translator asks what the original author would most likely have said, given the nature of his overall message and style and previous writings.ii. The translator asks what the copyists who copied the biblical writing would most probably have recorded due to either accidental mistakes or deliberate changes made to reflect the opinion of the copyist at that time.
Why can we trust the Bible?
The Bible makes some great claims, so we definitely need to ask whether its claims come out of a trustworthy source! The Bible has always been subjected to the most intense criticism down through the centuries and, for all the criticisms, it has never been proven false; it remains the best-seller of all time, and the most widely read and most translated book in history. It keeps proving itself to be historically, geographically, prophetically and scientifically true. For these reasons, we can definitely trust the Bible.
We can trust the Bible because it is true. By true, we mean it talks about reality—the Bible ‘tells it like it is’.
- It is true historically. While there might be some discussion about actual dates, the events recorded in the Bible fit with the history of the world. And the people of the Bible were real people in history—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, Caiaphas, Pilate, Festus and Felix; these are all well-documented persons of history and can be found in any reputable historical or encyclopaedic work.
- It is true geographically. There is nothing imaginary about the places the Bible mentions—they are real places and many of those that no longer exist have been attested to by archaeology. Remarkably, these are proven places of history and can be found in any reliable encyclopaedic work.
- It is true prophetically. By a prophecy, we simply mean a prediction about the future that happens exactly the way it was predicted. The Bible is full of prophecies that were made and have come true. For instance, there are numerous Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s Messiah that have been precisely fulfilled by Jesus. When we add all the other prophecies the Bible has made that came true,1 there is powerful affirmation of the truthfulness of the Bible.
- The Bible is true scientifically. Obviously, the Bible is not a scientific book nor does it use precise scientific language. However, the Bible has been shown to be true scientifically. For instance, the ‘flat earth’ theory (the theory the earth was a flat disk and not a sphere) was believed by many cultures around the world including ancient Egyptian and Babylonian cultures. It was not until the fourth century BC that philosophers and scientists (e.g. Aristotle) realised that the earth was actually a sphere. But, four centuries earlier, in the eighth century BC, Isaiah the prophet talked about “the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22)—the Bible had already stated something the science of the day disputed, though later had to admit was true after all. Amazing!
- E.g. Israel’s captivity in Babylon; Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity through the intervention of the Persian king Cyrus; the destruction of Tyre; the destruction of Nineveh; etc.
What relevance does such an old book have today?
The Bible is old! Some parts are over 3500 years old. But, ‘old’ does not mean irrelevant. For instance, just because the law of gravity is old, doesn’t make it obsolete (jump out the window and see!—actually please don’t!)—some things are too important and true to be discarded.
- The Bible is continually relevant. The Bible claims that it’s a book from God, and therefore a book that only tells the truth (see Q 1 above). If that’s the case, then the Bible is continually relevant because it’s true. Truth never changes. One plus one still makes two and it has been that way from the beginning of the world and it will be until the end of time. When we talk about ‘truth’ we are talking about the way things really are. When we say the Bible tells the truth, we mean it is ‘telling it like it is’! That makes the Bible as relevant as reality itself!
- The Bible is personally relevant. What makes the Bible personally relevant is the range of issues it addresses. It speaks about all the issues of life—God, life, faith, death, marriage, divorce, government, the environment, worry, sex, sexual abuse, love, hate, substance abuse and other habits to avoid, anger, money, poverty, friendships worth having, conflict resolution, wealth, power and family. It speaks about world history and it talks about the future history of the world. The Bible is more than relevant.
Hungry for more? Please enjoy the following questions!
Lost in transmission?
The Bible was not originally written in a book, because the Bible is actually older than the invention of a book. Instead, the Bible was written on scrolls (sometimes made of animal skin, sometimes made of papyrus reed). And of course the printing press was invented many hundreds of years after the New Testament was completed, so copies of the Bible were written out by hand (we call them ‘manuscripts’). Sometimes the people who made a copy of a manuscript made mistakes, and this raises the question: Have we lost the original words? Has the Bible been lost in transmission?
Actually, this isn’t merely a ‘Bible’ problem, because every ancient document was copied by hand. For example, all the ancient Roman history of the Caesars was written on manuscripts. The way we determine the original wording of the author, whether the Bible or a Roman historian, is basically the same: (1) examine all the available ancient copies we have; (2) look at the age and quality of the copies to find out which are most useful; (3) look at any variation in wording between the copies; and (4) determine what is the original reading based upon what the author most likely would have written and what mistakes the copyists would most likely have made.
Thankfully when it comes to the New Testament there are more manuscripts than any other ancient work, meaning that we have lots of evidence available that helps us determine the original wording. As far as scholars are concerned, the more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the original, the better. Consequently, the New Testament is the best-attested work of all ancient works. Consider the following:
|Greek and Roman Histories||Oldest Manuscripts||Number Surviving|
|Livy 59BC–AD 17||4th Century AD||27|
|Tacitus AD 56–120||9th Century AD||3|
|Suetonius AD 69–140||9th Century AD||200+|
|Thucydides 460–400 BC||1st Century AD||20|
|Herodotus 484–425 BC||1st Century AD||75|
|New Testament||c. 100–150 AD||5800+|
Table 1: A comparison of the number of manuscripts between classical Greek and Roman histories and the New Testament.1
Often the Greek and Roman history we learnt at school is based on only a few manuscripts and often hundreds of years later than the original. Yet we are confident that these copies of Greek and Roman histories quite accurately contain the meaning of the original. But when it comes to the New Testament we have far more confidence in it than even these Greek and Roman histories. Knowing the large number and early age of the biblical manuscripts is simply to say that the Bible really is a most remarkable book.
1 Table adapted from: Daniel B. Wallace, “The Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts”, in Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning, ed. Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins and Thomas Schreiner (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 114.
Lost in transmission? The Dead Sea Scrolls
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 has been described as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the entire 20th century.
The reason being, before the scrolls were discovered (1947), our earliest copies (manuscripts) of the Old Testament (‘Masoretic’ texts) were dated from AD 935.1 But the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were actually written much earlier than these—1000 years earlier, in fact! This means scholars were able to test the accuracy of the copying process by comparing the earliest texts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls with the texts dated much later from AD 935.
Figure 1: The time difference between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the oldest Masoretic text. Note all numbers are approximate and rounded.
And they found that the Dead Sea Scrolls were 95% identical to what was written 1000 years later. And while a 5% different might sound quite large, it actually isn’t. Let’s take Isaiah 53 as an example.
While Isaiah 53 contains 166 words, scholars discovered that out of these 166 words, only 17 letters were different between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic texts that were written 1000 years later (AD 935).2 And of these 17 differences, ten are spelling variants (like the difference between ‘color’ and ‘colour’) and four are stylistic changes (like whether or not to include a conjunction like ‘and’).3 None of these affect the meaning at all. This now leaves us with the last three of the 17 letters to be accounted for. These three letters actually spell the word ‘light’ in Isaiah 53:11.4 The Masoretic text does not have this three-letter word, but the Dead Sea Scrolls have it. Scholars think that in all probability, the word ‘light’ (as contained in the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is the most likely (hence the NIV translation includes it). But in all honesty, the inclusion or exclusion of this word does not alter the fundamental meaning of the text.
All this is to say that despite 1000 years of hand-copying, the meaning of the biblical text has not suffered any substantial change. This degree of accuracy is because the Masoretic scribes (Jewish Bible scholars who lived AD 500–1000), who copied the Old Testament, would count all the paragraphs, words and letters of the book after they had copied a book, and used this counting to make sure they did not make errors. Their respect for the Old Testament was so great they simply did not want to make a single mistake.
The bottom line? The Bible was copied extremely accurately from the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written (from the third century BC to the first century AD) to the Masoretic texts some 1000 years later. As more ancient manuscripts are discovered, we are moving closer and closer to the original documents, and this is reflected in the very slight revisions in our extremely accurate modern Bible translations.
For further reading:
J. Randall Price, The Dead Sea Scrolls (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, Inc., 2005).
Joseph M. Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013).
J. Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997).
- J. Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997), 280.
- We are referring here to the Hebrew University Isaiah scroll labelled 1QIsb, not the Great Isaiah Scroll. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. and expanded ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1986), 382.
- R. Laird Harris, “How Reliable is the Old Testament Text?” in Can I Trust My Bible?, ed. Gordon H. Clark (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), 124.
- Joseph M. Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013). Isaiah 53:11 in the NIV reads: “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.”
The world’s best-sellers?
The Bible has been the world’s best-selling book for millennia. But how many copies have been produced and in how many languages has it been translated? And how does this compare with other written works? Although it is often impossible to know exact figures, the following table contains a best-guess of the world’s best-sellers.
|Title||Author(s)||Original Language||First Published||Number of Language Translations||Approximate Number of Copies|
|Bible||37 Different Authors||Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek||NA||531||7.5 billion|
|Quotations from Chairman Mao (The Little Red Book)||Mao Zedong||Chinese||1964||20+||900 million|
|Qur’an||Muhammad’s Followers||Arabic||632||50||800+ million|
|Don Quixote||Miguel de Cervantes||Spanish||1615||60||500 million|
|Xinhua Dictionary||Various Authors||Chinese||1957||1||400 million|
|Book of Common Prayer||Thomas Cranmer||English||1549||200+||300 million|
|Pilgrim’s Progress||John Bunyan||English||1678||200+||250 million|
|A Tale of Two Cities||Charles Dickens||English||1859||200+||200 million|
|The Lord of the Rings||J. R. R. Tolkien||English||1954–1955||40+||150 million|
|Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)||Antoine de Saint-Exupéry||French||1943||225+||140 million|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||J. K. Rowling||English||1997||70+||107 million|
Table 1: The world’s all-time best-sellers. Note that some figures are approximate and rounded, as the exact numbers are unknown.1
1 The table was constructed using information from the following sources:
Noel L. Griese, “The Bible vs. Mao: A ‘Best Guess’ of the Top 25 Bestselling Books of All Time”, PublishingPerspectives.com, 7 September 2010, <http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/09/top-25-bestselling-books-of-all-time> (2 March 2015);
“Top Ten Best-Selling Books of All Time”, Crunkish.com, 15 February 2008, <http://crunkish.com/top-ten-bestselling-books-of-all-time> (2 March 2015);
“The 15 Biggest Bestsellers EVER After The Bible”, The HuffingtonPost.com, 30 July 2010, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/30/the-15-biggest-bestseller_n_664029.html> (2 March 2015);
Ed Grabianowski, “The 21 Best-selling Books of All Time”, HowStuffWorks.com, 19 December 2011,<http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/21-best-sellers.htm> (2 March 2015);
“Scripture & Language Statistics 2014”, Wycliffe.net, 1 October 2014, <http://www.wycliffe.net/resources/scriptureaccessstatistics/tabid/99/Default.aspx> (29th January 2015);
Nabeel A. Rana, “Quran Translated into 114 Languages”, University of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, 3 September 1993, <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Publications/Quran_Translated_13255.html> (2 March 2015);
“Don Quixote”, online-literature.com, 22 December 2009, <http://www.online-literature.com/cervantes/don_quixote> (2 March 2015);
Charles Wohlers , “The Book of Common Prayer in other Languages”, http://justus.anglican.org, 21 February 2015, <http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/languages.html> (2 March 2015);
“The Books”, jkrowling.com, <http://www.jkrowling.com/en_US/#/works/the-books> (2 March 2015);
“The Little Prince”, thelittleprince.com, <http://www.thelittleprince.com/work/the-phenomenon/publishing>, (2 March 2015).