Is the Bible the Word of God or the Word of Man?
The Bible claims that it is not the word of man, but the Word of God. Peter, after speaking of the Transfiguration, writes the following words about Scripture:
19And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21).
Peter claims that “the prophetic word” of Scripture is more fully confirmed than the Transfiguration. That is quite a claim. Furthermore, this prophecy of Scripture (Peter means that all of Scripture is prophetic, in the sense that prophets spoke the words of God) does not come from human interpretation or will. It is the result of the Holy Spirit, carrying men along.
Throughout the Bible, it is clear that the prophets and apostles are not delivering their own message. They never claim to be writing one of many religious documents. The prophets stated, time and again, “Thus says the Lord . . .” God told Jeremiah, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer. 1:8). He told Ezekiel, “You shall speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). This is the pattern of the Old Testament prophets.
Jesus himself certainly affirmed that God authored the Old Testament. In Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is quoting Genesis 2:24. Notice, Jesus says, “Have you not read that he who created them . . . said . . .” Though Moses wrote this passage in Genesis, it is ultimately God speaking. (Compare also Rom. 9:17 with Exod. 9:16—the same point is made in reverse). Paul said that all Scripture (meaning the Old Testament) is authored by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Paul elsewhere puts the Old Testament and the New Testament on the same level calling them both Scripture (he quotes Deut. 25:4 and Luke 10:7 in 1 Tim. 5:18, referring to both passages as “Scripture”). Furthermore, Peter calls Paul’s letters “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Acts 1:16 states that “the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David” and then quotes Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. (The same is true in Acts 4:25 and Heb. 3:7; 4:7.) So, the Holy Spirit spoke through a human author, David, just as 2 Peter 1:19-21 claims. Additionally, it should be noted that the author of Hebrews claims that Jesus spoke Psalm 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:5-7) and the Holy Spirit spoke Jeremiah 31:33-34 (Heb. 10:15-17). The implication is clear: the entirety of the Bible is God’s Word.
The New Testament apostles show an awareness of sharing God’s Word, not just their own. Peter, of course, acknowledges that in the passage we just looked at. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). To the Thessalonians, he wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul knew he was delivering God’s Word.
In 2 Peter 1:19-21, quoted above, Peter is affirming verbal plenary inspiration, to use theological terms. That means that all (plenary) words of the Bible (verbal) are inspired (inspiration), or breathed out by God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that God dictated the words of the Bible to the prophets and apostles. Rather, the Holy Spirit worked through these men (who were “carried along”) to produce the exact result he desired. God used the personalities and experiences of the biblical authors to produce his perfect Word. This method of writing God’s Word might seem odd to us, but it is perfectly characteristic of God’s actions throughout history. It testifies to God’s sovereignty in using imperfect human beings as his instruments to achieve his perfect ends.
In order to understand how credible the Bible’s claims are, we should contrast the origin of the Bible with two other sacred books, The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. When viewed in this light, the strength of the Bible stands out.
Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844). The Book of Mormon, one of the chief spiritual books of Mormonism, was published in 1830. Smith purportedly received a visit from the angel Moroni in upstate New York in 1823. The angel told him the location of some buried golden plates. Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.” Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person. Smith wrote of this event in The Pearl of Great Price:
68 We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
69 Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
70 He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.
71 Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.
72 The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger, and baptized.
73 Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation.
This story is extraordinary for many reasons, of course. I will point out only a few problems with Smith’s story, though there are many, many more. The first problem is that in the 1851 edition of The Pearl of Great Price, Smith said that it was Nephi, not Moroni, who appeared to him. This “error” was “corrected” in subsequent editions. However, handwritten manuscripts from 1842 also state that it was Nephi, not Moroni, who appeared to Smith. This, I suppose, could be written off as a copyist’s error—a slip of the mind or a slip of the pen.
The second problem is far more serious. Just a few verses before the above-quoted passage from The Pearl of Great Price, Smith writes:
63 Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:
64 “I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.
65 “He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”
Smith reports that Martin Harris took a sample of the “reformed Egyptian” writing on the golden plates and brought it to Charles Anthon, a professor at Columbia University, who then affirmed the authenticity of the writing and the translation Smith had made. The only dispute came when Anthon denied that angels could have brought such a document to Smith.
All of the above sounds possible, except for one problem. Anthon never approved of the writings and the translation that were shown to him. E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”
As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 BC and AD 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Other details in The Book of Mormon do not agree with archaeological evidence. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”
The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls purportedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud.
Let us compare that story to the story of the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. Muhammad was born in Mecca about a.d. 570. In 610, he supposedly began to receive a series of revelations from the angel Gabriel. Winfried Corduan describes this revelation:
The unique twists of Muhammad’s spiritual experience began in a.d. 610, while he was meditating in a cave located on what is now called the Mount of Light, overlooking the plain of Arafat outside Mecca. As Muhammad fell into a trance, trembling and sweating, the angel of Gabriel spoke to him. “Recite!” the angel proclaimed to him. At this moment the brooding, introspective merchant turned into the stern prophet who refused to compromise his convictions and suffered for his steadfastness.
The Qur’an consists of a number of revelations allegedly given to Muhammad from Gabriel between 610 and 632, the year Muhammad died. There are 114 revelations in the Qur’an, each written down in a sura, or chapter. Muhammad did not write down his revelations, but after his death, they were collected into one book. He would recite these revelations to those present in the community (Qur’an means “reading” or “reciting”). His followers memorized these portions of the Qur’an, and some of them wrote the revelations down.
The second Caliph (successor to Muhammad), Umar ibn Kattab, ordered Zayd ibn Thabit, one of Muhammad’s secretaries, to compile these writings into the Qur’an. Later, in 651, the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, noticed something problematic for the early Muslim community. Several Muslim communities were using versions of the Qur’an that varied in their readings. He was concerned that this might lead to doctrinal confusion. Therefore, he requested that an official copy of the Qur’an be made and that all other copies be burned.
The creation of the Qur’an is radically different from the origin of the Bible. Corduan explains: “The Qur’an is essentially the product of one man. Its content spans a little more than twenty years within a single cultural context. By contrast, the Bible spans about fifteen hundred years in several different languages and highly divergent cultures.” The approximately forty human authors of the Bible wrote its books in different places at different times. The New Testament, in particular, has multiple authors, writing from multiple locations, to multiple locations, at multiple times. James White calls this “multifocality.”
Obviously, the origin of the Bible is quite different from the origin of The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. It was not delivered to one man. No group of conspiratorial men edited the Bible and burned all previous copies. The early Christian church was too busy growing rapidly and avoiding persecution to have the means to create a document in a centralized manner. According to James White,
[M]any people believe the ancient church somehow “controlled” the text of Scripture, so that if an ancient leader or group wanted to “delete” a belief they no longer held, they could do so. This is manifestly not the case. Never was there a time when any man, group of men, or church “controlled” the scriptural text. Even if a group had decided to alter it, they could never gather up all the copies already in existence; the means of travel would preclude such an attempt even if one was launched, for distribution of the copies would far exceed anyone’s ability to recover them all.
The composition of the Bible was divinely superintended, not fabricated by one man or group of men, the way the facts suggest The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an were created.
- The Scripture passages quoted here are taken from the English Standard Version. ↑
- It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.” ↑
- “Joseph Smith—History 1:68-73” in The Pearl of Great Price. ↑
- Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 200-201. ↑
- E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270-72; quoted in Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 212-13. ↑
- Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216. ↑
- The information in this paragraph was taken from Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449-55. ↑
- Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1998), 79. ↑
- Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 93. ↑
- Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 108. ↑
- James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd. ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82. ↑
- James R. White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority and Authenticity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004), 144 (original emphasis). He makes a similar point in The King James Only Controversy, 77: “You see, because the New Testament books were written at various times and were quickly copied and distributed as soon as they were written, there was never a time when anyone or any group could gather up all the manuscripts and make extensive changes in the text itself, like cutting out Christ’s deity or inserting some foreign doctrine or concept. Neither could someone gather up the texts and try to make them all say the same thing by harmonizing them. If someone had indeed done this, we could never be certain what the apostles had written, and what the truth actually is.” ↑