It was December 26, 1986.
I was on a flight from Miami to Honduras, and there was an incredible view out my window. We were above a cloud deck at 33,000 feet; it was in the early afternoon
. The white light of the sun was making a starburst pattern on the window of the Boeing 737 with white clouds below, deep blue sky and ocean all around. I sat there for an hour totally captivated by this incredible sight, having moments of conversation with the Artist of this masterpiece.
Finally, I said, “Lord, if there was any time that You would want to speak to me, I am listening right now.”
I took out my Bible and randomly opened the pages; it happened to be in the Book of Psalms. My eyes fell on the page, and the first line that I read was “How lovely are Thy dwelling places, Oh Lord of hosts!”
It was Psalm 84 that I ‘happened’ to turn to. God was speaking directly to me, sitting in seat 19F, on a flight to Honduras.
I read on, totally enthralled at this encounter with the Living God through His Living Book, finally coming to verse 10 and 11: “For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand outside.” Looking out the window, I had to agree. There was more - a very personal message for me, a single man who had left a conventional career path to follow a sometimes ‘illogical’ leading, wondering about financial and family issues: “For the Lord is a sun and a shield. The Lord gives grace and glory. No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. Oh Lord of Hosts, how blessed is the man who trusts in Thee!”
Looking back many years later, I realize what a specific word this was to me. He has not held back ‘any good thing’ from me in these years of following Him. I have a spectacular wife, extraordinary children, a fulfilling job, and am experiencing the adventures of three lifetimes. Indeed, all the good things in life He has given me, just as He said He would on that day, December 26, 1986, as I sat in seat 19F on the Boeing 737!
How has God spoken to you specifically through His written word? Sometimes it’s reading something that you may have read before, but because of the circumstances of your life, suddenly the words jump off the page and into your heart. You know these words are for you and you alone this moment! You have just experienced a veritable encounter with the Maker of the Sunrise and Sunset- your Creator, who knows you, your thoughts, your concerns, and your needs. You know that He has just reached out and touched you!
Although there are many explanations why the Bible is special, this is the most significant reason- an encounter with the Living God.
There are many spiritual books available on Planet Earth, where people go for the answers of life. The Hindus have their Vedas, written between 1500 and 900 B.C., as well as many other later writings. Muslims consider the Qu’ran, written by Mohammed over a 23-year period beginning in 607 A.D., to be God’s Holy Words, even containing the presence of God Himself. Buddhists look to the Tripitaka or Pali Canon, and other sacred works for their guidance.
In my early adulthood, I read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality, and Journey to Ixtlan which described his training in shamanism, where I learned how to control my dreams. I also received much spiritual guidance from Tom Wolf’s book The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, which described the LSD and other psychedelic drug adventures of author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in California in the 1960’s.
When I began experiencing God in 1981 through an encounter with the demonic spirit inhabiting my girlfriend, I began a search for the true Jesus. I knew the Bible was going to be a major source for my information about Jesus. Little did I know that it would become a transforming force in my life.
But could I trust it?
As I began my research, I discovered that the Bible stands alone among these above-mentioned spiritual books in many respects.
Since Johannes Gutenburg invented the printing press in 1439, the most printed book in history has been the Bible, with 2.6 billion copies printed since that time. If you took all the copies and stacked them end to end, the stack would reach one third the distance to the Moon (I did the calculations myself!)
photo: a replica of the Gutenburg Press at the
Museum of the Bible Washington D.C.
A most exclusive feature of the Bible is fulfilled prophecy- predicting future events. A famous “prophet” of the Middles Ages, Nostradamas, has been about fifty percent correct in the things that he predicted would happen. Many modern-day prophets, and those seers in the psychic networks are less than fifty percent correct in their predictions. So far, the Bible has been one hundred percent correct in its prophetic messages. Here are just three (of many) fulfilled prophetic messages:
1) That the Persian king Cyrus would allow the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Babylonians.
“It is I who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited!’ And of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built.’ And I will raise up her ruins again. It is I who says to the depth of the sea, ‘Be dried up!’ And I will make your rivers dry. It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’” Isaiah 44:26-28 NAS
This was a prophecy given by Isaiah about 690 b.c. before the Persian Empire existed and was fulfilled in 539 b.c. by the Persian king who happened to be named Cyrus.
2) That the powerful Phoenician city Tyre, one of the most important and powerful cities in the Mediterranean world, would be destroyed and become a fishing village.
Therefore, thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. And they will destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers; and I will scrape her debris from her and make her a bare rock. She will be a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea, for I have spoken,” declares the Lord God, “and she will become spoil for the nations.” Ezekiel 26:3-5 NAS
This prophecy was given about 575 b.c., and it was fulfilled a few centuries later when Alexander the Great surrounded Tyre, and after a long siege, destroyed the city. Years ago, I saw a photo of the site of ancient Tyre in a magazine (probably National Geographic), and it showed a few buildings of a fishing village with nets spread out over the bare rocks along the shore!
3) That Jesus would be crucified. This prophecy was given over 500 years before crucifixion was invented as a form of capital punishment.
My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. . . .For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots. Psalm 22:1, 16-18; NAS
Does this first line of Psalm 22 sound familiar? It should. It is what Jesus said while hanging on the cross. This prophecy was given about 1000 b.c. and fulfilled about 33 a.d. Read Matthew 27:33-50 for the chilling almost word for word fulfillment of this prophecy.
The most amazing aspect of the Bible is that it claims that it is a “living book” and “God breathed”,
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 NAS
All Scripture is God-breathed (Greek: theopneustos). 2 Timothy 3:16 NIV
These are fantastic claims about a book apparently written by a group of random men over 2000-3500 years ago! Do you believe this?
Most we will meet in the café ministry are unaware of the Divine aspect of the Bible. Even if we acknowledge these are God’s words to these ancient peoples, how can we in our modern world understand and apply the writings of the Bible in our own lives? This will be a challenge for all followers of Christ, for our own personal benefit as well as for the others that God will bring across our path.
Many of our new friends at the Rio Coco Café come from a “post-Christian” culture, where the Bible is not held in high regard, and often considered to be just a book of philosophy, literature and mythology. That’s what I was taught during my high school and college years.
Isabella is a chemical engineer from Santiago Chile. She came to Utila this past summer and spent many days with us in our café. She is a very personable and attractive lady, who obviously enjoys the attention that her beauty brings. One day we sat with Isabella, and asked her what she did in life. She told us that she worked for Dow Chemical and sold plastic molding products. We spent the next half hour discussing plastic molding in her industry, and how large plastic objects are made inside even larger forms. She told me about the lengthy processes, chemical properties, curing times, and seemed fascinated that I was interested. I was! I had often wondered how these things were done.
Then I asked her about her family, which she was happy to describe, as well as life in Santiago. Finally, I asked if she had a spiritual side.
“Oh yes, I believe in reincarnation. I know that I have lived past lives, and will continue to do so.”
Seeing a surprised look on my face, she continued:
“I had to ditch my Catholic upbringing to move on to this.”
“Isabella, on what do you base your thoughts about reincarnation?”
“Oh, nothing really. I have read a few books, but it just seems right to me.”
“Wow. I find it so interesting that one who bases all her professional life on empirical data would adopt a worldview base entirely on her feelings.”
Now the surprised look was on her face.
“Why did you ditch your Catholic faith?”
“Because it is all so ritual and impersonal.”
“Have you ever considered what Jesus had to say about life, and what is coming next?”
“Have you ever read his words in the Bible?”
“So, you a scientist, who has spent your professional career examining scientific studies, and making your living selling scientifically proven products, has not taken the time to examine the words of Jesus before casting aside Christianity for a theoretical concept of life? Really?”
So did Isabella.
It was then that I explained in a few minutes much of the historical evidence that supports the claims of the Bible (and which will appear here in the following pages).
“Ok. I will read the words of Jesus. Where should I begin?”
How did Isabela get to the point where she could ditch Christianity for her theoretical world view? As it turns out, she never had an experience with God reading it. She just thought of it as ‘another book’.
Understanding how many came to think of the Bible as ‘just another book’ is very helpful for us in the café ministry, or anywhere we ‘serve a cup of life’. Isabella was surprised how many modern historians regard the Bible a good history, in spite of what she was taught in school.
The Bible has had a tremendous impact on Western Culture. My friend Dr. Randy Smith said in our book Living In The Spiritual World (p.49) that “If you stuck a syringe in to human history and sucked out the influence of the Bible, I think Western history as we know it would completely collapse. Just look at the influence of the Bible on our Declaration of Independence! The Bible has had a direct impact even on the lives of those who have tried to prove it wrong.”
The Bible had long been considered ‘The Truth’ by Western Culture during the latter days of the Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle Ages. Changes in opinions began to occur as scientific advances took place, and European culture moved away from a Biblical worldview. Remember that Galileo was brought to trial by the Roman Church authorities because he discovered that the Earth actually rotated around the sun. The Religious authorities claimed that the Bible stated that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and Galileo was forced to recant his statements. Later work by Copernicus and other astronomers confirmed a heliocentric solar system with the Earth being one of many planets in orbit around the Sun.
This cast doubt on the historical accuracy of the Bible as it was taught by the religious authorities. This was more to do with the Roman Church’s understanding of the document than what the Bible actually stated. Also many officials in the Roman Church had a desire to control the thought of the general population through the restrictions placed on the general public of reading the Bible themselves.
Because of this and other issues such as the selling of ‘indulgences’ for the forgiveness of sins, a movement developed which was called the Reformation that challenged the authority of the Roman Church, and insisted that each follower of Jesus should read the Bible, and if possible, in their own native tongue. There were many practices and traditions in the Roman Church that had no scriptural basis. Many felt that these practices and traditions were contrary to what the Bible actually taught.
Although from the time of the latter Roman Empire through the Middle Ages the Bible was considered to be God’s revelation to mankind and an authoritative guide to understanding God and His desires for our lives, things changed during the Renaissance when European culture turned toward Humanism, with Man being the measure of all things. Later, Rationalists such as Voltaire in the 1700’s openly disputed the historical nature and authority of the Bible, and set out to destroy its reputation.
“One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.…….If we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first of all destroy man's belief in the Bible." - Voltaire 1694-1778
Interesting, Voltaire’s home in Geneva was later used by the Geneva Bible Society as their warehouse for Bibles. Never forget that God does have a sense of humor!
During this same time, the most notable scientist of our era, Sir Isaac Newton, had differing thoughts about the Bible.
“We account the scriptures of God to be the most sublime philosophy. I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane history whatsoever.” Isaac Newton 1642-1727
Despite wide acceptance by learned men and women such as Newton and other scientists in the 1800’s, European Bible scholars such as Julius Wellhausen and Ferdinand Christian Baur began teaching that the Bible was not really written by the historically accepted authors, nor was it written when it claimed to be. These two are often the source of modern skepticism of the Bible.
Wellhausen published his most famous work, Prolegomena to the History of Israel in 1883. Based on stylistic considerations, he decided that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which according to the Biblical text were authored by Moses, were in fact written by four different writers, and at a later time.
Wellhausen based his theory on the different uses of God’s name, (“J for Jehovah, “E” for Elohim), material in Deuteronomy that is different from the other books, and a later priestly source. According to Wellhausen, the “J” source was written during the time of Solomon, mid 900 B.C. “E” was written a hundred years later in the northern Kingdom of Israel. “D” was the third source, written sometime in the 700’s B.C. at the court of King Josiah, and finally “P” was added to the others in the 400’s B.C., probably under the auspices of Ezra.
Wellhausen did not think the ability to read and write was widespread in the Second Millennium B.C. (1500) so that it was improbable that a desert culture actually had that ability to communicate in that manner. He speculated that this was a skill that came later, thus the later authorship.
Wellhausen’s theory is called the Documentary Hypothesis, and became the accepted understanding of the Books of Moses for most European and some American theologians. Variations of the documentary hypothesis are taught at many seminaries to this day and referred to as Higher Criticism, and casting great doubt on the veracity of the Bible as it is written.
If Wellhausen is correct, then the events of Genesis and Exodus are akin to the stories of Greek mythology. There was probably no six-day creation event, the Flood during Noah’s time was a mythological account similar to the Trojan Horse. Personalities such as Adam, Eve, Abraham Moses, David, Joshua, are in the same realm of the Greek heroes Achilles, Hercules, and Odysseus who never really existed. The miracles of the Exodus from Egypt never happened, and the laws that God gave to Moses were only the collection of moral values and religious traditions developed over a millennium of Jewish history.
The stakes are high in the acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis
Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) was a German theologian who founded the Turbingen School of Theology, challenging the traditional view of the New Testament. Using documents from the Fourth Century, Baur concluded that the writings of Paul and Luke were in conflict with the writings of Peter, James, and the other Jewish writers. Paul was in fact considered a heretic.
According to Baur, the book of Acts is really a Second Century document, as are the Pastoral Epistles (Timothy & Titus), which were written not by Paul, but later authors. Baur taught that the four Gospels were in fact adaptations of an earlier account of the life of Jesus, not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. According to Baur, John’s gospel "does not possess historical truth, and cannot and does not really lay claim to it."
The theories of Wellhausen, Baur, and others are still influencing seminary students, pastors, and the average citizen who “hear” that the Bible is not really written by the Biblically named authors, is full of contradictions, is not historically accurate, and cannot be trusted as a source of God’s thoughts on humanity, morality, society, or eternal life. The Biblical Worldview outlined in the Bible has been rejected by many as a result of the theories taught by Wellhausen, Baur, and their disciples.
Do you find these theories compelling?
Do you have reasons to believe that Baur and Wellhausen are not correct?
What will be your response to a friend who says that the Bible is just Jewish mythology?
Another reason that the Bible has been discredited is because of the misuse of Scripture of many so-called Christians over the years to justify their own economic or political agendas. We became friends with an Israeli family in Jerusalem in 2000, and were invited to their home for dinner. As we sat down at the table, my new friend Eli said: “Michael before we begin, could you tell me why Christians came to my city a thousand years ago and killed over 30,000 Muslims and Jews?”
I knew immediately he was referring to the Crusades, which were launched by Pope Urban VI in 1096, to recapture the Holy Land. Christian Armies surrounded Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 and when they finally broke through the walls, unleashed a slaughter on all the local inhabitants, including many local Christians. I explained to Eli that the Crusades were not a something that God commanded but rather the Pope in Rome did, and there are no commands in the Bible to kill Jews or Muslims. In fact, the mandate is to protect life, not take it. He seemed satisfied with my answer and we began the meal.
Have you ever experienced someone using a passage of Scripture for their own personal gain? It happens by people who don’t really know the God of the Bible.
Another infamous application of Scripture occurred in the 15th Century Spanish Inquisition when this verse was taken out of context and used to torture and kill many:
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who parts from me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. John 15:5-6
Tomas de Torquemada was a Spanish monk who was appointed the Grand Inquisitor for all Spain in 1487. Apparently Tomás took this verse literally. He was deeply religious and zealous Catholic who felt that non-Catholics and insincere converts could destroy both the church and the country. He used torture to gain evidence and prosecute heresy, witchcraft, bigamy, and usury. About 2000 people were burned at the stake during Torquemada's term of office. That offended many, and still does. The Spanish Inquisition often comes up in conversations with Europeans. This is one of many misuses of Scripture that has left a bad taste of the Bible in the mouths of many.
Imagine using torture against people who believe differently than you and justifying it using Scripture. Because of misuse and confusion over the years, the Bible is now not considered by many to be God’s infallible word, but rather a collection of often mysterious writings, men’s opinions, and Jewish mythology. Yet the Bible declares that
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The key word here is ‘all’, not ‘some’ or ‘almost all.’ The entire Bible as we hold it contains God’s standards of right and wrong, His desires for our lives here on Planet Earth, and His plans for our future. We believe that all the answers to the critical questions of life are contained in the Bible.
However, we have three problems when we try to make sense out of the Bible:
- We have a False Division of the Bible- “Old” Testament and “New” Testament, and confusion over the meaning of the “New Covenant”. We think that mankind’s relationship with God changed somewhere between the last chapter of Malachi and the first chapter of Matthew. We even think that somehow God changed from a punishing vengeful character in the Old Testament to a rather nice guy who we call ‘Daddy’ in the New!
- We have a faulty interpretation: We try to fit Scripture into our culture and time. We ignore the cultural context, and pull out disconnected verses to make our points.
- We often have a false application: We forget that Scripture was not written to us, but for us- for our benefit. We forget it is the principles that we are to follow, not necessarily the cultural practices prescribed in the Bible, and end up binding people to restrictions that God never intended us to follow. We forget the heart of God that is revealed in the Scriptures, and focus on our list of convenient “rules”. We consider the Scriptures to be more legislation than information.
How do we avoid these modern and ancient pitfalls of understanding Biblical truth and applying it to our personal lives? Do we want to be like the Crusaders and Inquisitors?
Anthropologists tell us it is essential to understand the Bible within its own cultural and historical setting. This is the first step if we are to hear from Good and draw Truth from the Scriptures for our own lives, and for the benefit of the people around us. Dr. Paul Heibert, professor of Anthrogology at Fuller Seminary, is one of many experts who points out in his classic, Anthropological Insights For Missionaries (p.14), the essential value of knowing the cultural-historical context of the Bible, as well as understanding the culture of the people we are trying to reach. Without these two essential elements, Dr Heibert says are in danger of proclaiming a message to other cultures that has no meaning. We agree!
The Challenge for me and perhaps you today is to:
- First: Understand the Bible in its historical and cultural context;
- Second: To know God and His ways and extract Biblical Truth that we can apply to our own lives.
- Then we are qualified to proclaim this Message and give this Truth to those around us.
Long ago, a famous Biblical refugee named Ezra faced a similar challenge, and he came to the same conclusion.
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7:10
How then are we to discern what the message of the Bible actually is?
As Peter declares (1 Peter 2:9), we are a nation of priests. We have all been given the right to read and personally interpret the Scriptures, because if we are true believers, then we have the Holy Spirit guiding us. Our interpretation must be accurate and faithful to the Biblical text. It cannot be viewed only through our modern cultural perspective, but must be understood within the context of when it was originally presented. This has been the mistake of many ancient and modern church leaders, giving our society a very twisted view of Scripture. It is important to remember that the Bible has a culture of its own: the values, moral, and truths of the Bible stand alone and above all other “cultures”.
When we open the Bible, we literally step out of the 21st century and back into time. The writers of the Bible wrote to a particular audience. They never realized there would be people 2000 years later reading their books and letters. However, the Holy Spirit did! This audience spoke a different language and thought in a different manner than we do. In addition, the writers assumed that you, the audience, knew certain things, many of which we have forgotten today.
For example, the lover in the Song of Solomon describes his beloved as:
“Your belly is as heap of wheat, surrounded by lillies.” Song of Solomon 7:2
What do we do with this verse? I can see the response of my wife as I say to her tenderly: “Laura, your belly is as heap of wheat.” Would that get me in good graces with her? Not in her cultural context. She works hard to keep her body in shape! So what is writer saying?
Fortunately, there is an explanation. Hebrews think functionally while Greeks think in terms of form. If I showed a Biblical Jew and a Greek a coffee cup and asked them each to describe it, the Greek would tell us the color, the shape, and where the handle was. The Jew is a functional thinker who would say simply” “I can drink coffee with that.” It is important to understand the difference between how the two cultures of the Bible think. The Jewish lover is describing his beloved in terms of function, and not form. Her belly is the place where all the children will be produced- children who will work and provide for the couple in their old age. This indeed is a beautiful thing! Cultural context is very important in understanding the message of the Bible.
But can we trust it? That is THE Question! Our co-author of Living in the Spiritual World, Dr. Randall Smith describes how he looks at the Bible.
It is important to understand that just because two people “understand” exactly what was said doesn’t mean that the two of them have the same concept of what was being communicated at all. That happens in marriage and especially in cross-cultural communication. As a young archeology student, I innocently invited the 15 year old daughter of the Arab cleaning lady to see the John Wayne movie playing at the theatre in Jerusalem. That invitation in her culture was the same as a marriage proposal, and it took months of very careful strategizing for me to extract myself from that situation while protecting her reputation!
As we come into the Scriptures and try to understand what is going on in the pages, we have to realize when I open my Bible, I step out of my 21st century world and go to another culture in another time. So it is a little more than just reading it and believing it.
Mark Twain is the one who said, “We know a lot of things that just ain’t so.”
You can read it, and see what they did and you can ask yourself “What does that mean to me and my family in the 21st century as I face my life and all the challenges?”
The reality is this: There is not one word of Scripture written to me personally, but every word of Scripture was written for me.
When God spoke, He spoke to a specific people at a specific time in a specific place to benefit me much later- but not to me. He said it to them in a way that they would understand it. I’ve got to do something more than just read it and believe it. It’s like putting a tea bag into hot water- I’ve got to allow the Scripture to permeate my “water” and change who I am by the principles involved in it. I’ve got to squeeze out of the story of God with Abraham, God with Moses, and God with David specific things: Who is God in this story? What does He want from David or Moses? It is the principle behind the cultural practice that I am after. What everlasting truth can I draw from this story that is relevant and applicable to my life today?
Let me give an example of this Principle Approach to Scripture. Leviticus 1 says:
Then the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock.
‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. Leviticus 1:1-3
I cannot go today to the Tabernacle in the Wilderness to offer my sacrifice, so what is in this passage of God’s everlasting Word that He commands me to know and accurately handle (2 Timothy 2:15) that can apply to my life today?
In verse one, we see God calling out to Moses. From this I know God often takes the initiative in His fellowship with mankind. This is an important principle for me to remember when I am feeling far from God.
In verse two, God orders the people to bring an offering from their own herd or flock. I can conclude that God wants me to return to Him some of the things He has freely given me. This is a good principle of relationship between God and me, and an important principle of God’s economics.
In verse three, God says to bring an animal without defect. From this I see God wants my best; He will not be happy with a half-hearted response from me. If He asks me to give $100 to the missionaries, He will not be pleased if I give only $50. If I am to paint the widow’s house, He wants me to use the best paint I can afford.
According to some teachings in our present , I could throw out Leviticus by saying “We are not under the Law!”, but I then would miss many of God’s Truths that apply very well to my life today. If we read the Scriptures, searching for the principles and truths behind the specific cultural practices, then we begin to receive life from the Word of God, not just dusty, out-of-date commandments.
Randy and many other prominent historians know that it often takes more than a simple glance at Scripture to understand and apply it in an appropriate manner to avoid the mistakes of the past. But the first question to consider is this: Is the Bible an accurate historical document?
I became friends with a dive instructor on Utila who graduated from a university in New York with a degree in American History. We had many enjoyable conversations! But James was an agnostic, believing that God exists, but sure that we could never have any definitive information about him- just theories and thoughts. One day we began a discussion of Christianity, and James told me that to him, the Bible was just another book. I then asked him if he remembered his Historiography class – the methods of historical study that we all were required to know as professional historians.
“James, did you study the three tests that all historians give to ancient documents to determine their truthfulness?”
“Of course I did. That is one thing we historians do. We have to decide if what we are reading has any degree of veracity. A lot of old books, especially from ancient writers are more fiction than fact.”
“James, do you know how the Bible stacks up against other works of ancient literature?”
After a long pause, and a sip of coffee, James said simply, “Tell me.”
For those of you who have never studied methods of history, here are the three tests all historians give to determine if a document is authentic and true:
- Manuscripts: How many copies of the document do we have and what is time between the original writing and the document we are holding in our hands;
- Internal Evidence: Are there contradictions within the document or is all the information presented consistent?
- External Evidence: How does the information presented in the document line up with external sources- archaeological evidence, pottery, monuments, & other writings.
In my studies, I have discovered that many historians, archaeologists, and scientists have concluded that in fact the Bible is good history.
James was surprised to hear me say that. But it’s true. As far as the New Testament, we have over 25,000 manuscripts, and the closest one is the Ryland manuscript of the Book of John that dates from about 125 a.d., which is about thirty-five years after John died. That’s very close to the original date of writing—a very small margin of error.
On the other hand, Homer’s Iliad was written about 900 b.c., and the earliest copy dates from about 500 b.c. That’s about 400 years between when it was written and the earliest existing copy. We only have 643 “ancient” copies of the Iliad. Compared to the New Testament, the Iliad has a greater margin of copying errors, yet scholars accept the modern version of the Iliad as what Homer wrote.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, which were dated from the Second Century B.C. and contain most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures which match the translation we use today only confirms the manuscript evidence- that we are indeed holding in our hands what was written by the 39 authors over 2000 years ago. This made a lot of sense to James. I could see his wheels turning. Photo: A portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the museum in Qumran
Are there contradictions within the Biblical account? Many who are uneducated say there is. If you take into consideration that the historical writers were giving ‘partial information’ (only the data they needed to tell their story), and if you read the Scriptures in the original languages, then the apparent contradictions disappear! I often ask anyone who says there are contradictions in the Bible to name one. Just one. I asked James to name one. He couldn’t.
The Internal Evidence is solid. What about External Evidence?
In the early 1900’s, many archaeologists traveled to Asia Minor and the Middle East, and began to dig on ancient sites. The pace increased after the end of World War I, when the French and British League of Nation Mandates controlled most of the region.
Archaeology in the past 100 years has discovered many artifacts of ancient civilizations. Pottery, clay writing tablets, leather scrolls, paintings, tombs, statues, stele (columns of carved stone with writing and pictures), palaces, homes, temples, and even entire cities have been discovered, uncovered, and recovered. I’ve been to some of the sites in Central America, Europe, and the Middle East.
Discoveries such as the Ebla Tablets (dated to about 2500 B.C.) and the black stele on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris containing the Code of Hammurabi (dated to about 1750 B.C.E.) proved Wellhausen wrong on his theory of illiteracy during the time of Moses.
It is safe to say there has not been one archaeological discovery contradicting anything in the Bible. James was very surprised to hear me say that, and he would not believe it. I pointed out that the artifacts discovered support the lifestyles and cultures described in the Bible. Often, exact names and dates discovered on the artifacts match the information given to us by biblical accounts!
I told James that many archaeologists have set out to prove the Bible is inaccurate, only to find it is indeed an excellent history book and a source book for their digs. One of the most famous of these was Sir William Ramsey, the first Professor of Classical Archaeology at Oxford University, who pioneered the study of antiquity in what is today western Turkey.
Now James was all ears, as a testimony from a famous historian/archaeologist who doubted the historical validity of the Bible, because of the influence of Baur, Wellhausen, and the Turbigen school would speak loudly to James’ historical training.
Ramsey spent years digging up cities in Asia Minor. Along the way, he found the Bible to be a valuable asset in his projects. He was especially impressed with Luke, who reported things such as prevailing winds, tides, geographical features and locations, and details of travel with great accuracy. Here are his own words, which I quote in another of my books, The Vision Behind The Verses, which happened to be sitting on a nearby table at the café, and which I read to James.
I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubingen theory had at one time quite convinced me. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought in contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvellous truth. In fact, beginning with the fixed idea that the work was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations. 1
James was stunned. He didn’t know what to think, as this went against all of his preconceptions. Then I showed him this quote from Sir William’s final book, The Bearing of Recent Discovery where he confidently wrote:
'Further study . . . showed that the book (of Acts) could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement' (p. 85).
On page 89 of the same book, Ramsay accounted,
'I set out to look for truth on the borderland where Greece and Asia meet, and found it there (in Acts). You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian's and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment...'
Does this give you confidence in your next discussion of why you believe? These facts certainly had an effect on my friend James.
During the summer and fall of 1999, our family lived in downtown Jerusalem, right next to Independence Park. Our apartment was a 12-minute walk from the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. On Saturdays, Mikaela, Lukas, and I would walk to the Old City, and wander around for hours before meeting Laura and Arielle for lunch at Abu Shanab, our favorite pizza place. One of the places that we often walked past was the ‘Albright Institute of Oriental Research’ located right outside Herod’s Gate, on the northeast corner of the Old City.
William Albright was probably the most eminent archaeologist of the 20th Century. Albright was a professor of Semitic Languages at John Hopkins University from 1938 until he retired in 1958, and was famous for his work on many sites in Israel, as well as authenticating the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. His research gave him a perspective on the Bible that I think is important for us all to hear. Here are a three of the many statements that Albright made about the historical reliability of the Bible:
“There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition. The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phases of which still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.” 2
“As a critical study of the Bible is more and more influenced by the rich new material from the ancient Near East we shall see a steady rise in respect for the historical significance of now neglected or despised passages and details in the Old and New Testament.” 3
“Until recently it was the fashion among biblical historians to treat the patriarchal sagas of Genesis as thought they were artificial creations of Israelite scribes in the Divided Monarchy or tales told by imaginative rhapsodists around Israelite campfires during the centuries following their occupation of the country. Eminent names among scholars can be cited for regarding every item of Genesis 11-50 as reflecting late invention, or at least retrojection of events and conditions under the Monarchy in the remote past, about which noting was thought to have been really known to the writers of later days.
Archaeological discoveries since 1925 have changed all of this. Aside from a few die-hards among older scholars, there is scarcely a single biblical historian who has not been impressed the rapid accumulation of data supporting the substantial historicity of patriarchal tradition. According to the traditions of Genesis, the ancestors of Israel were closely related to the semi-nomadic peoples of Trans-Jordan, Syria, the Euphrates basin and North Arabia in the last centuries of the second millennium B.C. and the first centuries of the first millennium.” 5
This library of 66 books written over a 1500 year period on three continents in three languages is a solid historical book, as well as the most unique book in existence. It contains at least seven forms of literature: Biography/History, Poetry, Wisdom writings, Lamentation, Prophecy, Legal Code, and Personal Letters(Epistles). These books contain God’s timeless principles for our relationships, community life, government, businesses, and science.
But most importantly, the Bible contains a portal into the presence of God Himself.
As we study these principles and the gain an understanding of God Himself and His desires for our lives, we must remember that the Bible is not necessarily written to us, but for us. We are not Hebrews walking through the desert with Moses toward the Promised Land. We are not attending the church in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter addressing certain issues. The Cultural Practices prescribed by the authors (and Holy Spirit) are a reflection of God’s everlasting principles to address issues within the time frame and culture of the Bible. Where sometimes these cultural practices are out of date, and no longer applicable, the principles behind these ‘prescriptions’ remain current.
A good example of a cultural practice that reflects an everlasting principle is found in Exodus 23:19.
You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Ex 23:19
One of the tenets of the modern Jewish kosher diet is to never mix dairy products with meat. We discovered what Kosher meant the first time we went to the McDonald’s Restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, just a few blocks from our apartment. There were no cheeseburgers or Big Mac on the main menu. That was strange! When my son Lukas ordered a McFlurry (a milkshake) at the station at the far end of the counter, he was directed to a room off to the side by a guard, where he was forced to stay until he finished his milk product. For McDonalds to keep their Kosher certification, he could not be in a room with us eating our meat sandwiches.
Religious Jews understand Ex 23:19 (and Ex 34:26) to mean that God forbids a meal with dairy and meat served together. As a result, most Kosher kitchens have two refrigerators, two sets of dishes, and two sets of flatwear (forks, spoons, knives). They also have separate sinks to wash the meat dishes and the dairy dishes.
Not cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk was a commandment that God gave to Moses to pass on to all the people. It is a cultural practice with a principle behind it that must have some relevance to my life since it is in the Bible. After all, Paul told his disciples Timothy that “All Scripture is God-Breathed and useful to teach us…(2 Tim 3:16)”
When Paul wrote these words to Timothy, the only ‘Scripture’ in existence was the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament was in the process of being written. So, what is in this strange commandment that is useful to teach me what is true and to do what is right? This is where it helps to understand what was going in the neighborhood when God gave this commandment to Moses.
Maybe if I have the ‘context’ of the command, I might understand the principle behind the cultural practice, and then be able to apply that principle to my life in the 21st century.
According to Alec Motyer (The Story of the Old Testament p.13) and other historians, a common practice among Egyptian and Canaanite people was to produce a magic fertility potion by killing a young goat by boiling it in its mother’s milk. Then all would drink this magic elixir and the result would be an increase in the flock, which would result in great prosperity.
In the Miskito culture along the Rio Coco in Nicaragua and Honduras, a common practice is to have a “sukia” (spiritual medicine man) kill a chicken and sprinkle its blood on your rice or bean field, which would cause the deity which controls such things to make your crop grow more abundantly. Killing a young calf by boiling it in milk or cutting off a chicken’s head and sprinkling blood are two techniques to manipulate a spirit to cause your economy to improve. One is from 2000 BC and the other is from 2020 AD.
However it is clear that the principle behind the command to “not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” when placed in the cultural context is simply that God’s people must not seek prosperity by occult means or glorifying the gods of fortune.”(The Story of the Old Testament p.12) God says simply “Don’t be like the Canaanites or the Egyptians who do such things to improve their economy. Just trust Me, and I will take care of all your needs.”
This is consistent with what Jesus commanded in Matthew 6:
“So don’t worry about having enough food or drink or clothing. 32 Why be like the pagans who are so deeply concerned about these things? Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs, 33 and he will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. Matthew 6:31
How do we apply this “not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk” principle in our 21st century culture?
What about the lottery tickets that we see in convenience stores everywhere? Should a follower of Jesus participate in the state lotteries? The payoffs are huge, and we might hit a good number! Imagine what we can do for the Kingdom with all that cash!
But is playing the lottery really trusting God with our economy, or are we glorifying the gods of good fortune? For me, this is the “boiling a goat” principle with a modern application.
Another good example of the Cultural Practice/Everlasting Principle has to do with an issue that will pop up in our ministry at the Rio Coco Café.
What does the Bible say about tattoos?
Many have heard that these are prohibited, and that anyone who has a tattoo cannot be a follower of Jesus. What does the Bible actually say in its cultural context? What is the everlasting principle behind the command? It is found in Leviticus 19.
“Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. Do not trim off the hair on your temples or clip the edges of your beards. Never cut your bodies in mourning for the dead or mark your skin with tattoos, for I am the Lord”. Lev 19:25-28
There we have the prohibition against going to Psychic Mary and her friends who charge you for a session of hearing from the spirits. God Himself will speak to you if you are listening. He will take care of your economy as well without killing a young goat!
The next is a bit strange- “Don’t cut your hair and don’t make marks on your body.” If you have ever seen a Religious Jew, you know immediately by the curly locks hanging from the sides of their head and their beard that they take this one literally. And tattoos? Forbidden! (Photo is at the Western Wall with a Religious Jew walking in front of Pierre, Craig, & Michael)
Now let’s step back and take a look at the context of this command. It may change the understanding of the principle, and our application of this principle in the 21st century. God begins this conversation with Moses by saying this at the beginning of Chapter 18:
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say this to your people, the Israelites: I, the Lord, am your God. 3 So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life. 4 You must obey all my regulations and be careful to keep my laws, for I, the Lord, am your God. 5 If you obey my laws and regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord. Lev 18:1-5
It appears that God is being very clear to His people. “Don’t be like the people around you who do things that displease me. Follow my commands and you will have life through them. Be distinct in whatever culture you find yourself. I am your Creator and you are my people.”
Earlier in this conversation with Moses recorded in the book of Leviticus, God says it in very plain language:
“You must be holy because I am holy." Leviticus 11:44
The word holy in the Hebrew language is “Qadowsh”. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains this word means:
‘pertaining to being unique and pure in the sense of superior moral qualities and possessing certain essential divine qualities in contrast with what is human.’
God’s command to His people is to be “Qadowsh”. We are to live our lives displaying a higher morality that reflects the character of our Heavenly Father. We are to be examples of Him and His ways. Many times, that will cause us to act differently, dress differently, speak differently, and think differently than the people around us.
Apparently, the Egyptians and Canaanites were cutting their hair short in their religious practices to their gods. They were also making cuts and tattoos on their bodies in ceremonies for the dead. God said not to do such things.
So what about tattoos? Can we have a tattoo and still be “Qadowsh”?
A few years ago, we took the leaders of our school project in Nicaragua, Truman and Mirna, on a Caribbean cruise to celebrate our 20 years of working together. Our assigned waiter at dinner was a young man from India named Geromino, who is seen in the photo serving Baked Alaska to Lukas.
I realized that with a name like that, he might be from Goa, which used to be Portuguese colony. That might also tell me his religious background. Since I was spending some time with him every evening, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and use my time with him for Kingdom purposes. I wanted to be intentional. So one evening I asked:
“Geronimo, are you by chance from Goa?”
“Yes I am!” he replied.
“Are you Hindu or Muslim?”
“I am Christian” he said proudly as he took off his white glove and set his hand on the table in front of me.
I noticed a cross tattooed on his hand between his thumb and forefinger.
“Do all Christians in Goa have that mark on their hand?” I asked surprised.
“Yes. That is what makes us to be Christian!” Geronimo said.
In his cultural setting, having a tattoo of a cross on his hand is what made Geronimo and other Christians in Goa ‘Qadowsh’. In this case, Geronimo was obeying the principle in Leviticus 19:26 by having a tattoo! It is what made him distinct from the Hindus and Muslims in his neighborhood. Geronimo taught me something that night, and we had many conversations over the next week about our faith, and the challenges around us to be ‘Qadowsh’.
As you read Leviticus 18:6-23, you will notice many prohibitions against sexual practices that were common among the Egyptians and Canaanites. God wants to protect the sanctity of the family unit, and He created sex as the ultimate expression of intimacy between a husband and wife. Having sex with your sister, mother-in-law, an animal, another man’s wife (or woman’s husband) or someone of the same sex is a practice that will have an adverse effect on the intimacy of the husband-wife relationship. Here the practice and principle are inseparable. Interestingly, God tells why these practices must be avoided:
24 “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the people I am expelling from the Promised Land have defiled themselves. 25 As a result, the entire land has become defiled. That is why I am punishing the people who live there, and the land will soon vomit them out. Leviticus 18:24-25
Being “Qadowsh” somehow relates to the success of God’s plans for His People. Have you noticed the effects of sexual promiscuity on our culture? Many children are being raised in one parent families, which statistics show greatly affects their chances of ended up in jail. Have you been part of a divorced family and experienced the broken relationships that result? God’s plan was always to have the family unit -father, mother, children- as the foundation of society. When the family unit is destroyed or redefined, emotional chaos often follows, and disfunction increases.
In the Rio Coco Café ministry, our mission is not to simply copy Biblical cultural practices, and present a list of rules to our new friends, but rather to understand and apply these Biblical principles to our relationships and ministry. We must avoid “religion” and stick to a living relationship with our God and His People. This is why we must devote ourselves to studying and understanding God’s Word.
Work hard so God can approve you. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
Like Paul’s disciple Timothy we too must be prepared to understand, correctly explain, and put into practice the things God has given us. Then we must teach these principles to the people God brings us through our ministry at the Rio Coco Café .
You have heard me teach many things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Teach these great truths to trustworthy people who are able to pass them on to other. 2 Timothy 2:2
We have an opportunity to help the Bible come alive to our guest at the Café. Through our understanding of it principles, and the application of these principles in our own lives, many will discover the riches of the Bible, and the beauty of God Himself.
Let me finish with one of my favorite quotes about the historical accuracy and uniqueness of the Bible. I think that hearing this from one of the foremost historians of our time will encourage your own beliefs and empower your conversations with your friends.
Will Durant was (1885 – 1981) was an American historian and philosopher who is best known for his 11 volume work titled The Story of Civilization, which he co-authored with his wife Ariel. I read large portions of The Story of Civilization while attending Miami University’s Luxembourg Campus in the Grande Duche’ in 1971-72. The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for the 10th volume, Rousseau and Revolution (1967). I have especially enjoyed Caesar and Christ, where I found this portion, which I used in Just Another Lump of Clay, with permission. Although I don’t agree with all that Durant says about Higher Criticism and the Bible, for one of the most respected historians of the 20th Century, he makes a truly remarkable statement! Lean in to the societal significance this profound declaration.
“In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church….
All this granted, much remains. The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essence the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree remarkably well, and the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament test of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies - e.g. Hammurabi, David, Socrates- would fade into legend.
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidences that mere inventors would have concealed- the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.
That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels.
After two centuries of Higher Criticism, the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.” (The Story of Civilization, Caesar and Christ, p. 557) 6
1: Ramsay, W. M. (1907). St. Paul the traveller and the Roman citizen (pp. 7–8). London: Hodder & Stoughton.
2: William Albright the Archaeology of Palestine, rev.ed. Hammondsworth Middlesex, Pelican Books, 1960, p.127-8
3: William Albright, The Stone Age to Christianity. Baltimore, John Hopkins Press, 1946. P.81
4: William Albright, The Old Testament and the archaeology of the Ancient East, Found in Old Testament and Modern Study, by Harold Henry Rowley, Oxford University Press, 1951. P.25
5: William Albright, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra, New York, Harper & Row, 1960, p.1-2
6: Michael Bagby, Just Another Lump of Clay, Kaneohe Hawaii, Straight Street Publishing, 1996, p. 226-7