This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Christian Leader magazine. I co-wrote it with my Lead Pastor, Brent Warkentin.
Reading the Bible can be (very) hard. Even for seasoned believers, certain sections of Scripture can seem to have very little cultural relevance to our lives today. Other parts feel repetitive, and some verses are just flat-out difficult to understand. Virtually all believers would probably agree studying God’s word is “important,” but actually doing it—especially on a daily basis—can be a frustrating and discouraging battle.
If you’ve ever felt that way or are currently facing some of those struggles, you are not alone. God’s Word is life-giving, but it is also certainly a challenging book. It isn’t necessarily meant to be casual “fun” reading, and certain books don’t work particularly well for your kids’ bedtime stories (“Mommy, why does Solomon keep talking about pomegranates?”).
Our church family recently went through a teaching series where we took a deeper look at the Bible. Can we trust it? How do we know it’s accurate? Is there other historical evidence to back it up? Is it possible to really understand it? Is this book really even worth reading?
The short answer? Yes. It is trustworthy and you can understand it. If you’ve never developed a habit of reading Scripture or are currently facing a reading slump, here is some info and tips that may be helpful to you.
You Can Trust the Bible.
A good first step for all of us would be to decide if we can even trust this thing in the first place. If the Bible is full of historical lies, we’re all wasting our time. However, if we can prove that these stories are true, we should take them seriously. Jesus and other biblical writers make some pretty bold claims about the purpose of human existence. If we can prove its accuracy and reliability, that should provide significant motivation to learn as much as we can.
You may be surprised to hear that there are no original copies of the Bible. We don’t have the entire Old Testament behind bulletproof glass in a museum somewhere. It’s impossible to take our text today and compare it word-by-word with the original copies of the Greek or Hebrew texts to confirm its accuracy. The words we read today are copies of copies of copies, passed down verbally and copied by hand for generations and generations throughout human history.
If you’ve ever played the “telephone” game (where one person starts out with a message and whispers it to the person next to them, who whispers to the next person, and so on), you know messages can get jumbled. It’s true that the more times a story changes hands, the more likely it is to vary from the original intended message. With stories that are literally thousands of years old, many people point to that phenomenon to question the Bible’s accuracy. It seems almost impossible that the text we read today could be exactly the same as the original divinely-inspired word of God.
The argument is reasonable, but it isn’t necessarily a detractor from the accuracy of Scripture. The truth is we don’t have original copies of any historical document. If you can’t trust the legitimacy of the Bible, then you also can’t trust any historical document. Does it take some faith to trust the Bible? Yes. But does it also take faith to trust Aristotle and Herodotus and even recent American history?
Here’s the good news: The accuracy of the Bible is more trustworthy than most of the books you grew up reading in school, and here’s why:
Short Time Span.
If you have trouble trusting the words of Moses or Luke, then you really can’t trust the words of Plato or Caesar. Plato’s classic work The Republic was written in 380 B.C. Just like the Bible, we don’t have any original copies of Plato’s work. The earliest copy archaeologists and researchers have found is believed to be from 900 A.D. (1,280 years after it was written). In comparison, most of the New Testament was written between 50 – 100 A.D. The earliest copies we have records of today are less than 100 years old. Less than 100, compared to 1,280 years! It seems logical that the earlier the copies are, the more we can trust them. If that’s true, the Bible stacks up well against similar historical documents.
Number of Manuscripts.
Along with the relatively “short” time span between the copies, we also have a high number of manuscripts of the original texts. To date, researches have discovered around 750 copies of the Old Testament and as many as 5,600 of the New Testament. Do you know how many copies of Plato’s Republic we have?
As in one, two.
This many: _ _
Two, compared to 750.
When you have 750 copies of the same story, you are able to compare. Let’s say there’s a discrepancy between manuscripts, or maybe the scribe had horrible handwriting and you’re not totally sure if there were 500 soldiers in an army or 50,000. When you can compare between hundreds or thousands of copies—compared to two—you’re able to get a much clearer picture of what is most likely more accurate. Again, compared to other ancient texts, the Bible is remarkably trustworthy.
This is the killer argument. In biblical times, people were hired as scribes to be “guardians of the text,” and they took pretty extreme measures to make sure these copies of the original text were as pinpoint accurate as possible. As the scribes were making copies, they read the words out loud as they wrote. When you speak out loud, your mind is much less likely to wander and make mistakes.
Beyond that, the exact number of paragraphs, words, and letters of the copies of text had to match the original text exactly. So let’s say you spent days handwriting the book of Isaiah. There are 66 chapters and 1,291 verses in that book. After all that work of reading the words out loud and copying each verse by hand, let’s say you finish and somehow left out three letters. Not even a full word. Somehow your transcript was three letters short of the original.
Guess what? You get to throw that sucker away and start over!
And not only that—but the very middle sentence, word, and letter of each book had to match the original. Go ahead—take this article and find the very middle letter by counting each character by hand. Even better: Read it out loud as you make a copy, and then find the middle letter.
Copying a 280-character tweet with this method would be enough to drive me insane, but this is how we got our copies of Scripture today.
The Bible is miraculously trustworthy. If you can’t trust the Bible, you really can’t trust anything you’ve ever read. It still requires faith to study Scripture, but it’s a very reasonable faith.
You Can Do It.
Even if you do believe in its accuracy, the Bible is still a difficult book to read. It’s long, certain stories don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and some of the theology is admittedly confusing. Remember this: Just because something is hard to understand doesn’t mean it’s not true. Algebra and chemistry and physics are all true, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.
You may not have a lot of faith in yourself to understand these concepts and stories, but the biblical writers had some words of encouragement for those who would read their letters. Here’s what Paul said in his letter to the Romans:
“I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
Or possibly even more encouraging:
“You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth… The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” (1 John 2:20, 27)
God has anointed you. You are competent to learn and study on your own. It is true that God gives special teaching gifts to some leaders, and it is definitely wise to learn from others who study Scripture. But as you do that, remember that God will help you to understand His Word.
We live in a pretty incredible time where we have countless books and concordances and websites and DVDs and seminars. God has certainly given insight and teaching skills to many leaders in today’s church that we would be wise to utilize.
However, remember the words from John and Paul above. You have what you need to do it on your own. You don’t have to hold hands with Beth Moore or Francis Chan or RightNow Media. You have the knowledge you need to understand the Bible, and—even better—you have the Holy Spirit inside of you guiding your thoughts and your mind.
If you’re in a slump, try a new version. If you’re not much of a reader, find an audio version you can listen to in the car. If you haven’t already, download the free YouVersion app on whatever mobile devices you use. Choose a reading plan that takes you through a specific book or topic, and then tell a friend who can help keep you accountable.
One of the key things people can do to understand the Bible better is to read a shorter passage (just a few verses), slowly, several times (even out loud) and actually pause and think and pray to God for some insight. Ask God, “What are you trying to teach me? Are you reminding me of something I already know? What are You telling me to do? Is there a promise in these verses to trust? Is there a command to follow? Is there a sin to avoid?”
The Bible is a challenging book, but next time you find yourself struggling, remember three things:
- Out of all of human literature, you can trust the Bible.
- When studying difficult passages, it can be helpful to learn from scholars and teachers. BUT, be confident that the Holy Spirit is in you and He will help you understand His Word!
- “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 corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip His people to do every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NLT)