How much trust do you put in your Bible and what it teaches? For centuries now, skeptics of Christianity have been producing reasons why the Bible’s teachings should be doubted. These arguments, still being made today, are constantly being reformulated and shuffled into new variations, but they all boil down to the common theme that the scriptures should never be taken at face value. Today (believe it or not), even some Christian scholars and pastors are making similar claims.
Perhaps you have encountered some of these ideas. Here are some examples. Some say that we should not take the claims of the scriptures at face value, but rather approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism, since, after all, they were written in such a different time and place. We in the modern world have a lot of knowledge that the Biblical authors were ignorant of, and therefore our knowledge should temper and even trump their teachings.
There is also the argument that the Bible is so vague that there cannot possibly be one correct interpretation. Everyone is entitled to create an interpretation for themselves.
Some teachers would also have us believe that the various authors of the New Testament irreconcilably contradict each other, showing that the early church disagreed even about basic things like who Jesus was. In this line of thought, it is believed that the different books of the New Testament were forced into one collection by the church later on in history, and then invented a theology to help smooth over the contradictions. While these ideas are each different, they are all opposed to the idea that the Bible teaches a single, clear, authoritative message about true events that informs our lives here and now.
Even if we put great trust in the scriptures, all these assertions from many different angles can tempt us to second guess ourselves, and to cast doubt on the authority of God’s Word. What ought we to make of all these ideas? Who should we listen to?
Well, for starters, we can look to the Biblical authors themselves. The scriptures actually provide for themselves a defense against arguments such as these. Take a look at Mark 14:55-62:
“Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”’ Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
Here we see Jesus coming under fire in a way similar to that which the reliability of the Bible is today. After his arrest, he was put on trial before the priestly council in Jerusalem. Lots of people came, trying very hard to come up with an accusation that would discredit and destroy Jesus. Many accusations were made, but they were all full of holes.
Mark tells us that these accusers were giving false witness against Jesus. This is a significant judgment, revealing not only that Mark judged these people to have misunderstood Jesus, but also that his own account of Jesus is a true and accurate witness. Mark is implicitly asking us to trust his account and understanding of Jesus as the authentic one. But how do we know that Mark can be trusted, and he is not just as misled as the false witnesses?
One way is by using one of Mark’s own criterion for the reliability of a testimony: that multiple witnesses share the same story and interpretation. Mark actually provides for us a specific example for us to test this: the things that Jesus said about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. If what Mark says about it is true, we could expect that others writing on the topic would share his story and interpretation, so let us explore this.
First, let’s look at how Mark represents the false witnesses, and how they say the event occurred. “And some stood up and bore false witness against [Jesus], saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands”’”(Mark 14:57-58).
Contrast this with what Mark claims to be the true story of what happened: “And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’”(Mark 13:1-2). Jesus never threatened to destroy the temple, but he did foretell its destruction, so we can see how a false witness could come to tell a corrupted version of what Jesus actually said.
The gospel of Matthew also contains an account of this story: “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’”(Matthew 24:1-2). Clearly, this is a corroboration with Mark’s account.
Not only does he agree with Mark, but Matthew cites the same example of how this statement was twisted in a false accusation against Jesus: “Now the chief priest and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This man said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days”’”(Matthew 26:59-61). This is a weighty and striking agreement, especially in contrast to the false witnesses, none of which could agree.
Now, let’s look at what Luke wrote about this: “And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, [Jesus] said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’”(Luke 21:5-6). As opposed to the contradictory testimony of Jesus’ false accusers, these three gospels present a unified story about what he said.
And finally, let us ask the question of how exactly Jesus’ statement about the temple got twisted in the way it did. This distortion could easily have come from a misunderstood teaching of Jesus that is recorded in John’s gospel. The context is right after Jesus had driven the merchants out of the temple. “The Jews said to [Jesus], ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ the Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken”(John 2:18-22).
So, without asking for clarification, Jesus’ questioners simply assumed that they understood him, leading to the false accusations that Mark and Matthew recorded. Taken together, far from being contradictory here, the four gospels not only affirm a true account of Jesus’ teachings, but describe the same particular twisting of those teachings by his enemies. Not only do the gospels present the same picture of Christ, they are united against the same opponent.
While these agreements cannot quite be used as an argument regarding the trustworthiness of the gospels, it certainly adds weight to the truth of their claims. While the gospels may not agree perfectly on every point, they often complement each other, and certainly do not oppose and contradict each other.
What can we say now about the assertion that we should not take the scriptures at face value? Clearly, Mark is inviting us to trust his account as being the actual facts and true interpretation of Jesus’ life and teachings. Who ought we to trust: the Biblical authors asking us to take them at their word, or the scholars and pastors asking us to take the Bible with a grain of salt?
If it hasn’t been clear already, I contend that the the authors of the Bible should be taken at their word, even over and against modern authorities. This account regarding Jesus’ foretelling of the temple’s destruction is just one example of how the Word commends itself to readers as a trustworthy book. In today’s world, there are parallels to this account. The four gospels still agree in their teachings, even while those arguing against the reliability of scripture disagree widely. Where will you place your trust?