How Convictions Affect Your Life-Outcomes
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Even though it has been many years since my high school graduation, I still remember certain things very clearly. I can recall how I felt: excited about the future, yet somewhat apprehensive about what lay ahead. Like most young people, I was full of ideas about how to make my future a good one. My goals involved making and spending some money during the coming summer and then off to college in the fall. But at the time of my graduation, the future was still a big blank. Would I do well in college? Would I have to go to Viet Nam like some of my older friends? Would I be getting married? Would I like the job or career that I chose? Would I have any fun?
All members of graduating classes think similar kinds of things about the future. There is a generous mixture of excitement and sorrow; hope and fear. In pondering about life in general over the past few years, it seems to me that life tends to progress through three stages after high school is completed. At each stage, there are some perks and some uncertainties. How we do in each of the stages is directly influenced by what we fundamentally believe. As I see it, the three stages of adult life are as follows: 1) Getting Started; 2) Mid Life; and 3) The Downhill Slide. I offer the insights I have gained in the first two stages of my adult life as a gift to those just beginning the journey.
Before I outline the stages of adult life as I have observed them, I must explain what I mean by fundamental beliefs. At any point in life’s journey, we operate from the basis of certain rock-solid conclusions we have come to about the way reality is. Obviously, personality and early training will have already shaped those deeply-held convictions. Religious commitments will also have contributed to the formation of how you see the world.
But along with these shapers of a person’s world view, are certain key choices all of us have made as we have encountered the mixed experiences of our lives. For example, we have chosen to believe that the outlook for our lives is basically hopeful or basically dark; that people can be trusted (more or less) or that they probably cannot be. We have chosen to believe that there is a God who is good and caring and wise or that whatever beings or forces there may be are not particularly interested in our welfare. We have also chosen either to follow along with what we have been told by others about these matters, or to think for ourselves. All of this is what I mean by fundamental beliefs. These beliefs will act as a compass as we navigate the uncharted seas we must cross into the future.
Getting Started. Your fundamental beliefs determine how you will face the uncertainty and the challenges of beginning your adult life. In the first five-to-fifteen years you will begin a life that is very different from the one you have known in your teen years. Some will begin to pursue higher education. Others will enlist in the military. Still others will enter some sort of employment. For a significant percentage of high school graduates, marriage and family will accompany these things somewhere along the line. You will find yourself stretched and challenged on levels you may not even imagine at the moment.
Along with the thrill of these new experiences come certain questions: Who am I now? Can I survive the new set of expectations placed on me? How can I prepare myself to succeed? Am I enjoying life in this phase? Are my relationships working as I want them to? At the time, there are no answers to those questions: only time and the choices you make will provide them. What you profoundly believe about the nature of things will directly determine the choices you make and the manner in which you react to the circumstances you will face. Your fundamental beliefs will make all the difference between success and failure in how you start out. They will color the way in which you define success and failure.
The Mid Life. What you profoundly believe to be true will determine how you survive the inevitable disillusionments of middle life. After fifteen or twenty years, the bulk of the new beginnings will have been made. You will probably have completed your education. The aspect of marriage and family will have at least been attempted. Careers will be proceeding along their course. You may find that you are doing very well. But watch out for this: you will probably wake up one day to realize that you are forty years old (much to your dismay) and, amazed, you will ask yourself how this could have possibly happened.
Then life gets busy again and you find that you are approaching that huge milestone of your fiftieth year. It will seem impossible that so much time has passed. Somewhere in there, you may experience what has been called a mid-life crisis. Besides feeling the effects of getting older, certain questions you have not been willing to face now must be answered, such as: Have I spent the past couple of decades wisely? Am I making any significant impact on those around me? Have I been a contributor to the world or a merely taker of what the world has to offer? Have my choices made me happy? Can I afford to make a significant change at this point in my journey?
It may be that you will find yourself in a job or career that is very frustrating and you can’t see yourself going on with things as they are. Maybe your family life is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it. You might experience health problems or the loss of someone very near and dear. You may have failed in some area of your life to which you have devoted much of your energy and ego. When things like this happen, many people ask, “Is this what life is all about? Is this what I must accept as the result of all my preparation, plans and effort.” The middle phase of your life allows you to truly experience life in its reality. It is also in this phase that you realize that some of your youthful dreams will never come to fruition.
The Downhill Slide. Again, what you believe will guide you through the your final years. OK, so you get through the midlife eventually, finishing your career and raising your family. The open road before you now is nearing its end. As you savor your accomplishments and rewards, you are beginning to evaluate your journey. Here is a typical scenario: For the most part, the younger generation will not bother to come to you for your advice or expertise. It is very likely that health problems will suddenly increase. More and more of your friends and loved ones will die, leaving you feeling very much alone. In some ways, the sadness you may have experienced periodically before this will become a much more prevalent theme.
As you realize these things, a new set of questions rises in your mind with some urgency: Have I spent my life well? Did I truly love anyone? Of the things I regret, are there ways I can still make some of them right? What comes next (if anything)? If you are a believer in God, you will also wonder whether he is pleased with you.
Obviously, what you firmly believe about the way life is, makes a huge difference in how you answer those questions. It can make the difference between an embittered old age, or finishing your productive years as a blessing to those around you. Your convictions can either take away the fear of death or leave you looking at the end of your life as just that—the end.
So, what are the options? In a society like ours, where we are free to choose, the options are many. I can’t begin to even mention them all, nor would I particularly want to. My own choices have included the decision to believe that God is good and that whatever has befallen me has been within his loving plan. That means that I believe my life has a purpose, which I may choose to fulfill or not. For me, it has meant that loving as God loves (expressed in Christ) is among the supreme virtues, that success in life is defined very differently from the definitions of others, and that I can have a sense of contentment not available to those whose beliefs may be different from mine.
Basic beliefs do matter. They make all the difference in how you face things; how you go about dealing with things. Beliefs make a difference in the goals you set and how you fulfill them. They make a difference in how you evaluate your life at the end. No one would expect an eighteen-year old to have a fully-formed set of convictions. The process of forming convictions may continue for some time into adulthood. Certainly your beliefs as a young adult will be sharpened and perhaps modified through the ups and downs of your future. But now is a good time to take stock of what you do believe, at least so far. There is always time to adjust, adapt and learn as time carries you forward. It is never too late to decide to trust a benevolent God, despite what the circumstances of your life may be saying at the moment.
My wish is that your life may be full of joy and goodness and love. I hope you have some fun along the way. I urge you to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Don’t forget your family and friends. The years will get away from you before you realize it, so at least settle your basic beliefs now. Yes, we can set goals and, to some degree, influence the course of our lives. But there is a side of life that cannot be planned or directed by anything we may choose. In some ways, life will just happen to each of us. When it does, the only choice that remains is how we will think about these circumstances and how we will behave as a result. In those times, what you deeply believe makes all the difference!
This essay was originally given as the speech at my eldest daughter Andrea’s baccalaureate service as a part of graduation week at Lemoore (California) High School, June, 1999.
The Interaction of Prayer and Effort
Many years ago a friend of mine quoted a little saying about prayer which I still remember: “Prayer is work. Prayer does work. Prayer brings work.” I have no idea where he got this catchy little phrase, but since then, I have found it to be profoundly true. Here’s why.
Prayer is work. It isn’t always easy to pray. As you begin, your mind may have a hard time focusing on God. It is difficult to visualize a being who is all-powerful and wise, and yet invisible. Perhaps your body refuses to cooperate due to weariness, hunger, restlessness, or cramped muscles. You may battle with doubt or guilt, perplexity, anger or even apathy.
Prayer is work because you must insist on making time for it in your schedule. Your creativity may be stretched to find a quiet and private place to pray. You may have to do some study of scripture in order to learn how to address God, what types of things you may legitimately pray about and what your motives should be.
Prayer is also work in view of the long-term routines required in prayer. It is one thing to pray now and then; it is quite another to pray consistently over a period of years. Over the long haul, it requires effort to overcome the fatigue and discouragement, which may go with praying year after year. Though prayer may be a joyful and even liberating experience, it clearly involves real work at times.
Prayer does work. I am aware of the skeptical argument which says that prayer is just wishful thinking. Skeptics believe that any perceived results of prayer are merely coincidental or are due to the power of a positive mental attitude. Yet I have personally known many people who would point to definite instances of prayers being answered in ways hard to write off as psychological.
Of course, this should come as no surprise to followers of Christ. Jesus promised in John 15:7 that if we abide in him, we may ask whatever we will and it will be done. I take this to mean that if our lives are closely bound with his, we may ask freely because our will and purpose will also coincide with his. There are numerous other biblical passages which say that God hears the prayers of people who humbly pray according to his will.
Serious Christian experience also demonstrates prayer’s effectiveness. Things happen. People change and circumstances work out which could not have done so on their own. True, God responds in his own way and timing. There may be times in which nothing much seems to be happening. But God does respond. It is not at all uncommon for God to answer in a way which clearly grants even the specifics we have requested.
Prayer brings work. That is, prayer often spurs the person praying into action. It does this in several ways:
First, prayer sets in motion a chain of divinely orchestrated events, which require the petitioner to do something. Let’s say you are praying for a job. In due time a position becomes open, but part of God’s answer is up to you. You must fill out an application and attend the interview. God will not just hand you a job on a silver platter. What God can do is bring about circumstances which are beyond your control. But when those circumstances occur, it is you who must act.
Secondly, there are times in prayer when it is almost as if God interrupts and says, “OK, stop right there. Don’t ask me to do something which you know in your heart that you must do.” Maybe you are praying for a neighbor who has lost her job. She is facing real financial difficulties. It may be a good thing to pray for her, but if you can help her personally, prayer must wait. Before you ask God to intervene, buy her a few bags of groceries; fill her tank with gasoline; give her children Christmas presents. God may be saying, “Yes, I’ll provide for your neighbor—starting with you.”
So work and prayer are indeed inseparable. Communicating with God requires some serious effort. God does respond to prayer and things happen. Sometimes prayer puts us in a position which calls us to take further action ourselves. How true it is: Prayer is work; prayer does work; prayer brings work!
Many people use the word faith. People claim to have faith or not to have faith in lots of things from baseball teams to governments, marriage and religion. When someone uses the word faith, a variety of things come to mind.
In one popular dictionary, there are at least nine shades of meaning in the current English usage of the word faith. For example, it can be defined as a personal opinion, a religious system, a sacred promise, or even as an attitude of perseverance (as in “Keep the faith.”). We English speakers have a genius for taking a word and using it creatively. In many ways, that is what makes our language so rich and adaptable.
However, there are times when we must be very clear about what we mean. For example, when Christians use the word in a gospel sense, much hinges on the correct understanding of the term. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises forgiveness, new birth, peace of mind, life-purpose, eternal life and much more. In essence, the gospel is this: If we will turn from our destructive patterns of doing things (sin) and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we will be saved. But what exactly does it mean to put faith in Jesus Christ? The New Testament idea of faith comes from the Greek word pistis, meaning trust, reliance, conviction–faith. As the New Testament uses the word there are several facets to the meaning of pistis:
First, it is a firm conviction that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the gospel accounts and that his death on the cross paid the penalty for human sin against God. It is an acceptance of what the gospels and the rest of the New Testament say about him. In other words, it is a belief that the information given to us in the Bible is accurate.
Of course, there are many people who simply don’t believe these assertions are true. They deny that Jesus was deity in any sense, or that his death had any significance other than as a tragic example of injustice. Some even deny his existence. Other people do believe in Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. They have come to the conviction that Jesus was unique in his dual nature as human and divine; that his death achieved atonement for sin; that he is lord over all and that to know him in a faith-sense is to be granted eternal life. This is the factual basis for faith. It is the mental response to the gospel message.
But faith moves on from a willing acknowlegement of certain biblical and theological truths to a personal choice to surrender one’s life with its willful independence, destructive behavior and violation of moral principles and to rely on God to remake us from the inside out. In other words, it is entirely possible to know the facts about Jesus and assent to their validity, but to miss eternal life. What is lacking is a profound response to these truths. This works out as a definite choice to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and allow his benevolent ownership of our lives.
This is why a main feature of evangelistic events is to bring truth to bear on the conscience so that people come to a point of decision. Without a definite positive response to Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation. This is salvation-faith. It what God asks of us in response to what he has done in Christ. It is both emotional and volitional. That is, it is a choosing to act on what the mind accepts.
But there is still another aspect to the New Testament usage of the word faith. Faith always results in actions and conduct consistent with the assent of the mind and the response of the will and emotions. The book of James reminds us that faith without works (actions) is dead. This is stating the rather obvious truth that we understand pretty well in other aspects of life. In a romantic relationship, if the feelings, commitments and words don’t show themselves in any sort of tangible action, the beloved would clearly have the right to question the reality of what he or she has been told. To say we believe in Jesus and never act in a way which confirms that claim, rightfully causes people around us to be highly skeptical of the validity of our faith.
In other words, faith in Jesus shows itself in visible ways. Certain things we were in the habit of doing which are offensive to God and other people now bother us. We notice and feel uncomfortable about how we use our mouths, how we treat people, how we regard ourselves and about our attitude of flippancy toward God. There is a new desire to please God along with the beginning steps of tangible actions showing that desire. We are pleased to see the basic shape of faith appear in our lives as we act on what we have come to believe.
OK: enough explanation. Now let’s get practical: does this describe you? Perhaps you don’t know enough yet to have a well-rounded theological faith, but at least you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for you, rising again from the grave. You have moved on from what you know about Jesus to a response of gratitude and a willing reception of what he has done. Your life is now showing the beginnings of real change on a number of levels. This is biblical faith, saving faith. There is nothing on earth like it. I highly recommend it!
From time to time, various magazines and television channels tackle the perennial question, “Who is God?”. Much space is devoted to personal views of a cross-section of people concerning who, or what, God might be. Well-known personalities are interviewed as well as other lesser-known people from around the world, including professed Christians of different varieties, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, agnostics and free thinkers.
As a student of world religion and Christian leader I find such inquiries to be intensely fascinating because they give us the pulse of what people are thinking in our wider world. For example, a Hindu beggar from Benares, India, reverences a variety of deities and wonders why he has been stricken with leprosy. He suggests that it may be because he is being punished by Brahma for bad karma in previous lives.
A California woman was raised in an Orthodox synagogue but says she can’t connect with God or with being Jewish anymore. The idea of God as she has understood it simply doesn’t connect in her life experience. A British biologist views God as the “ultimate reality” and believes that the destiny of individuals is to be absorbed into this supreme truth.
A Columbian hit man describes life as a dark experience in which God makes each person pay for the evil they commit. Yet he goes on to say , “God pardons everyone who seeks him, so pretty much you can do what you want.”
A Presbyterian minister defends his gay lifestyle by saying, “God loves you just the way you are”. He blames strong feelings against homosexuals on traditional religion.
A Palestinian sheikh views Allah as a vengeful God, and boasts of his willingness to die in holy war.
These views of God are indeed fascinating. Yet even so, they ought to prod our thinking a bit. Given the fact that people have an almost endless variety of opinions about what God is, it certainly does not follow that every opinion is equally valid. We Americans cherish our religious freedom. However, simply because people are free under the law to practice religion as conscience may dictate, this does not mean that all religions are equally true, or even equally beneficial.
This brings up the question, “How can we sort through the menu of religious ideas and recognize the truth when we stumble across it?” The Bible’s answer to this is simply that the whole question of religious opinion is irrelevant. It is not what we think about God that really matters, but what God has revealed about Himself to us that counts.
To this many people say, “Wait!” Who says the Bible’s portrayal of God is any better than the views of an Indian peasant or a Hollywood producer?” This is an excellent question. If what the Bible says about God is simply just another human opinion, then Christianity (and the ancient religion of Israel for that matter) crumbles like a house with no foundation.
So let’s narrow the field a bit. The Bible does not belong alongside the religious opinions of ordinary people simply because the Bible claims to be divinely inspired. It claims to be God’s word as revealed through the prophets and apostles. There is a quantum difference between what your neighbor thinks about God, and an ancient and widely revered document that claims divine inspiration.
What about the other books which share this claim? Many Christians answer this by pointing to the need to simply have faith in the Bible. While it is true that faith is necessary, it would be wrong to assume that there is no evidence for the Bible’s final authority. Consider these bits of evidence for the Bible’s unique inspiration: the amazing unity of its message, though written over a span of roughly 1500 years through more than 40 human authors; its triumph time and again over those who actively sought its destruction; the dozens of literally fulfilled prophecies; the impact it has had on millions of lives.
Also consider the historical fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. I understand that many people consider this to be a matter for faith as well. This is true, but not without some evidence. A major piece of this evidence is the ease with which those who wished to stop the rumor could have disproved it by opening the grave and displaying the body. They didn’t. Why would hundreds die willingly, knowing that the resurrection which they claimed to witness was a lie? Indeed, the Resurrection is the foundational fact on which the Christian gospel was and still is based.
So there is compelling evidence for the authority of the Bible in what it says about God. It proclaims Him to be the Eternal One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It shows Him to be holy, yet also merciful in sending His Son Jesus to die for our sins. It invites us to know Him through Christ and become His children. This, and much more God has revealed. Why settle for mere opinions?
The philosophical movements of the Enlightenment (roughly the 1700s) were a fundamental questioning of the certainties of the Middle Ages and a reaction to the clashes over truth during the Protestant Reformation. Traditional views in religion and culture came under severe inquiry and even open attack. For example, Rene Descartes questioned everything, except his own existence, then built the philosophy of Rationalism from one presupposition. “I think, therefore I am.”
Enlightenment thinkers reasoned that unless something made rational sense (rationalism) or can be tested and proved to the senses (empiricism), it should not be accepted. The Cosmos was seen as merely “the product of cause and effect in a closed system.” Enlightenment thinking obviously had a dramatic impact on religion, excluding the supernatural as a factor in real human experience. Religious dogma and doctrine were often questioned and discarded, not only by those of marginal religious commitment, but by some in both Christianity and Judaism.
In the early 1800s the philosophy of George Hegel took the next logical step. Hegel asked some basic questions: If the supernatural is not a factor in the routine workings of the Cosmos, how did things arrive in their present state? Are things moving in the direction of progress? If so, what mechanism causes things to progress?
Hegel’s answer was his dialectic process, which stated that the Cosmos is a closed system of cause and effect, driven by the conflict of thesis with antithesis (opposite forces, ideas, etc.). The interaction of these forces produces a blending of the two, which Hegel called synthesis. This process was thought of as a manifestation of Absolute Mind, which was thought to be the source of reality (similar to Brahman of Hinduism). Hegel’s basic philosophy quickly became the dominant theory in Western intellectual and academic circles. Variations of the Hegelian Dialectic were adapted to other disciplines, such as:
- Politics, in which Karl Marx preached the Communist theory of history and social change (1848).
- Biology, in which Charles Darwin posed the theory of Evolution as the explanation of life in its diversity (1858).
- The study of the Bible as a document in the Higher Critical Movement (beginning in the late 1700s).
Higher Criticism. The Higher Critics were led by German scholars such as K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who studied the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) using a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis, which was based on Hegel’s basic theory of progress and development. The premise of the Documentary Hypothesis was that the Pentateuch couldn’t possibly have been written in the form in which we now know it. The documents must have “evolved” over time into their present form, through a process similar to Hegel’s Dialectic, from primitive religious ideas and practices, ancient oral stories and legends and early written fragments of questionable historical value.
These diverse sources were then woven together over time by various editors, who blended and changed them into distinct religious documentary traditions (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly) within Israelite tribal groups. Finally, these four documents were further edited and combined into the current form of the Pentateuch. The Documentary Hypothesis opened the door to other Critical approaches to studying and understanding the biblical documents of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The basic flaw of the whole Critical approach is in making certain arbitrary assumptions:
1. History and religion should be understood as fundamentally naturalistic. True to its Enlightenment roots, the Critical view explains reality in purely naturalistic terms, dismissing the possibility of the supernatural. Miraculous accounts in the Bible are seen as embellishments made to gain credibility and power by certain groups and individuals, or merely legends perpetuated by simple tribal people.
2. Critical methodology is assumed to always be superior to other approaches. Wellhausen and other early critics took almost no notice of archaeological discoveries in their day, which sometimes disproved their assertions. Since then, the basic gist of Higher Criticism has never been revised despite a wealth of new information and findings, many of which have tended to support the accuracy of the biblical accounts.
3. The ancient Israelite peoples were ignorant nomads. For instance, the early Critics asserted that writing was extremely rare in ancient times and unknown to ancient Israelites. Yet ancient writing and documents are routinely uncovered by archaeologists. Egypt, Sumer, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Meso-America all had writing early in their histories. However it was expedient for the Critics to take the position that ancient Hebrews had little or no access to writing so that they could argue that, if figures like Moses and the other greats of the Scriptures existed at all, they couldn’t possibly have written a document of the stature of the Bible.
4. The Patriarchs are essentially legendary figures. Critics see Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the others as folk heroes, developed by people who needed to see their founding fathers as larger-than-life. Critics believe that the biblical stories of the Patriarchs actually tell us nothing about the Patriarchs themselves (including whether they actually existed). All that can be learned from the biblical accounts is what the times may have been like when the stories were first told, and what the composers of those stories thought life may have been like in earlier times.
Traditionalist Reactions to Higher Criticism. Traditionalists were initially caught unprepared by the critical onslaught of the late 1800s. At first, those loyal to the inspiration of scripture simply responded with vehement opposition to Critical views and denouncements of these new theories. This initial emotional reaction was followed in the mid and late Twentieth Century by more thoughtful scholarship, factual defense of the Bible and interaction with the views of critically-oriented academia.
Jewish Reaction. The more conservative groups within Judaism either defended the divine origins of scripture or took the approach that the origins of Scripture were irrelevant because the traditions have become a time-tested glue holding Jews together. The more liberal elements of Judaism have been influenced to large degree by Critical thought. Hence, they are freer to redefine traditional observance of the Law and accomodate the society around them.
Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox Reactions. The Vatican and the various Eastern Orthodox bodies have maintained their longstanding positions on the divine inspiration of scripture, though there is much internal debate on unofficial levels. The issue has not been quite as major among Roman Catholics or Orthodox as for Protestants, because both of these groups have other sources of divine authority besides the Bible. For example, both groups also accept the decisions of various ecumenical church councils on a par with the teachings of the Bible. Roman Catholics further accept the pronouncements of popes as binding.
Protestants. Protestant Christianity has been deeply divided on the issues raised by Higher Criticism.
Fundamentalist groups have flatly denied the arguments of the Critics, refusing to become involved in academic debate and becoming increasingly isolated culturally.
Evangelicals have been more willing to dialog with the larger culture. They have attempted to defend scriptural inspiration and reliability based on the disciplines of textual criticism and manuscript study. Since the mid Twentieth Century, Evangelicals have entered the debate over the reliability of scripture with growing confidence. However, the ascendancy of postmodern thought in the years just prior to the dawn of the Twenty-first Century has changed the focus of the debate away from the factually-based defense which Evangelicals have labored so hard to assemble.
Modernists have attempted to accommodate Christian faith and doctrine to the viewpoints of academia and of the larger society. In doing so, they have become culturally mainstream, but have tended to lose some of their Christian distinctiveness. This trend is attested to by their dramatic losses in church membership, as people have either ceased to think of themselves as particularly Christian, or have migrated to churches which emphasize distinctive Christian teachings.
The increasing influence of Postmodernism is moving all of the parties in this controversy toward a larger debate over the nature of reality itself. It will be interesting to see how each of them.
The traditional claim of the Christian Church is that the Bible represents the Word of God handed down through the centuries by God’s people. Judaism has, likewise, regarded that portion known to Christians as the Old Testament as having divine authority. Of course there is much more to Judeo-Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Bible than this, but for the purposes of this article we will begin by assuming the truth of these simple statements.
Flowing from the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of God in the writing of Holy Scripture is the question of the historical transmission of those documents. In other words, can we trust the copying process? Confidence in the Bible depends to a large degree on our confidence that the documents scholars use for modern Bible translations are faithful to the original writings. As far as anyone knows, none of the original manuscripts of the Bible written by the actual authors are still in existence. This fact leads to the very legitimate question of whether what we read in the Bible is really what was written down by Moses or Isaiah or Paul.
Because of the lack of proven original material, scholars must therefore rely on a comparison and analysis of manuscript copies to reconstruct the contents of the original text of the Bible. Scholars trained in the discipline of manuscript study study the various ancient copies available in order to sift out the small percentage of variant texts and synthesize the original content of the source document penned by the original writer. Without going into detail, the cumulative effect of decades of this study has yielded a very high degree of confidence in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
The manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures is quite strong (as already mentioned, Christians refer to this body of material as the Old Testament). While it might seem obvious that most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written in the Hebrew language, a few of the later portions are in a related language called Aramaic. This material of the Hebrew scriptures was probably composed sometime between 1400 and 400 BC by several dozen different authors, including Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, Ezra, and others.
Until 1949, the best and earliest manuscripts for the Hebrew Scriptures were known as the Masoretic Texts. These documents were copies of a chain of earlier manuscripts (now lost) made by Eastern European Jews between AD 800 and 1000. These texts had been the main source for the material used by both Jews and Christians for the Hebrew portions of the Bible. From the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment until the mid Twentieth Century, many critics of the biblical text argued that the accuracy of these fairly late manuscripts is likely to be very poor because of the long time-span (at least 1,300 years) from originals through a series of copies to the Masoretic Texts.
However, in 1947, through what some would call the providence of God, the textual integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures was overwhelmingly confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This large collection of miscellaneous scrolls, some of which date from as early as 200 BC, included very ancient copies of each of the book of Hebrew scripture, except for Esther. The scrolls were found carefully preserved in desert caves in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea. What scholars have discovered in studying these manuscripts is that, apart from a few very minor discrepancies, there had been virtually no change in the text of the Scripture in well over 1,000 years. Almost overnight, the argument that the manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures was doubtful suddenly became much less convincing.
In addition to the Hebrew manuscript copies, there is also an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made around 200 BC known as the Septuagint. A study of this translation in comparison with the Hebrew text further confirms the it manuscript integrity. So, based upon the evidence of the meticulous care with which the Jews copied their scriptures, as well as the insight provided by the Septuagint, we can have confidence that the material of the Hebrew Scriptures has a high degree of accuracy.
When it comes to the New Testament portion of the Bible, the evidence is even better. The books of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek (a kind of trade Greek) between AD 45 and 100, with the very earliest still existing manuscript portions dating from just after AD 100.
For example, there is a fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, which dates from around AD 110. Since the Gospel of John was likely written around AD 95, that puts the time from original to the earliest known copy at about 25 years. An even earlier manuscript portion, known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus, dates from the years just after AD 100. Since Paul probably wrote this portion some time during the years 55-65, this puts the time lapse from original to copy at less than 50 years. These examples illustrate the amazingly high quality of New Testament manuscript evidence compared with other examples of ancient literature. All told, there are something like 5,000 early Greek manuscript portions of the New Testament in existence today. Add to this evidence the many ancient Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian translations from the early centuries of the Christian Church. Working with these manuscripts, scholars are able to do intensive comparisons of the available manuscripts in order to “weed out” any copying mistakes and synthesize the original text of the New Testament.
Beyond the manuscript evidence, there exist a very large library of writings leaders of the early Christian Church (before 500 AD) which quote so extensively from the New Testament that it can be virtually reconstructed from those writings alone. One expert estimated that only one half of one percent (.05 %) of the New Testament is in any doubt as to the original wording, and most of the uncertainty has to do with word order, rather than content. So, just as with the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the New Testament is highly accurate.
All of this points to the conclusion that the Bible available to us is extremely reliable. It has lost very little, if anything, in its transmission from the original writings of its authors. While none of this by itself proves the Bible’s inspiration, it does lend credence to Judeo-Christianity’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures are the word of God, fully inspired and authoritative for the ages.