Reverse Engineering God–Part VI: Is the Bible Text Accurate?

Several years ago, I was sitting at a table during a prison ministry training session when the host handed me a slip of paper that read I was driving to the store, after attending service, when I was hit by a red pickup truck as it turned at the corner, and its cargo of green boxes spilled on the street. I was then instructed to memorize the message, put the slip of paper in my pocket, and then whisper the message to the person seated to the right of me. That person, in turn, was to whisper it to the person to the right of them, and so on. It was the classic telephone game. By the time the message made it around the table, it bore only a vague resemblance to the original message.

Understanding how easily messages can be garbled in transmission, the question that every student of the Bible should ask is How can we trust that our copy of the New Testament is accurate, given that it was written 2000 years ago, and how can we trust the Old Testament, given that the stories of Genesis go back over 5000 years?

Conceived Transmission Of Mark

The beginning of the answer to this question starts with the understanding that followers of the Jewish and Christian faith have historically been fanatical about maintaining the accuracy of their texts, and this is exemplified in the work of the Massoretes: scribes who maintained a particular tradition of insuring the accuracy of scriptures that they copied.

Let’s re-play our telephone game, but this time, using the Massortic processes. Instead of whispering what was written on the slip of paper, copy it carefully onto another slip of paper. Then check it, and check it again. Then count all the words on the original and on the copy. Then count the number of occurrences of each alphabetic letter in the message and compare, then compare the middle character of each word in the message, then check the middle word of the message. As these checks are being done, determine if any single letter is printed either larger or smaller, and if so, carefully duplicate it. Make note of any misspelled words, and instead of correcting them, place a dot above them to indicate that the misspelling was in the original text. If any variations are found in the copy, destroy it and start again. Once the copied message is perfect, hand it to the person to the right, and instruct them to do the same.

Given the new rules of the game, high confidence that the message would make it around the table in tact would be justified. Within the Hebrew tradition, any copy of the Old Testament scriptures that was in error or that began to show signs of excessive wear from use was disposed of ritually. For this reason, the oldest known (nearly) complete copies of the ancient scriptures are relatively new. The best of these manuscripts being the Aleppo Codex (10th  century A.D.), the Leningrad Codex (11th century A.D.), the Cairo Codex (9th century A.D.), and the British Library Codex of the Pentateuch (10th century A.D.). Scripture fragments found in the dead sea scrolls, dating back to the 3rd century B.C. show that the text is identical with the text of the Old Testament we have today, with only minor variations such as in Isaiah 6:3 they were calling vs. our current one called to another, and holy, holy vs. our current holy, holy, holy, and in Isaiah 6:7 sins vs our current sin. So after 1300 years, the manuscripts are found to be nearly identical.

Early Christians felt no obligation to follow the practices of the Hebrews when copying the letters and books of the New Testament, and because of this, scholars have hundreds of copies, and partial copies of these ancient letters at their disposal. The art and science of analyzing ancient documents is called textual criticism, and its traditional goal has been to determine, with as much accuracy as possible, the text of the original autograph. New Testament textual critics, though, are beginning to question if the traditional goal of their profession is appropriate. To understand this, we can describe the more likely process that provides us the New Testament we read today.

Jesus began his teaching ministry in the year 28 A.D. and shared his message in homes, synagogues, fields, and cities throughout Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and of course, in the Temple in Jerusalem. The NASB version of the New Testament captures a record of 31,426 words that Jesus spoke during this time, which equates to about four hours of total speaking time. So what did He say the rest of the time? The answer is twofold. First, He did and said things for which we have no record as John records in his gospel Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25), and second, it is likely that Jesus shared aspects of His message and parables over and over, just as every modern day evangelist and politician does when on the road.

After Jesus crucifixion, the apostles and disciples went out into the world, spreading the good news of Christ. And like their master, it is likely that Peter, Mark, Matthew, and the other disciples repeated the same stories over and over again in the streets, homes, synagogues, and churches that they visited in their missionary work.

At some point it became apparent to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John that in order to spread the good news of Christ to a wider audience, they would need to commit it to writing. And although Jesus taught his disciples in Aramaic, the only consistently understood language throughout the Roman Empire was common (Koine) Greek. And so while Greek was a second language to these men, it was the language they chose for their message.

Most scholars believe that Mark was the first to write a gospel, but the specific year has been in debate because of certain references included or omitted from the text. Some believe it was written in the 50’s, while others believe it was written after Peter’s death, between 67 and 70 A.D. A growing idea in the field of textual criticism, is that the authors of the New Testament writings may have made a copy of the writings, themselves, and may have shared more than one copy of their work, conceivably sending out revisions over a period of time. This revelation in the field is what calls into question the defined goal of textual criticism. Historically, it has been to determine, with the greatest degree of accuracy possible, the original text of the writings. But if, for example, Mark sent out different copies of his gospel to different churches at different times, with possible edits to wording and additions in the later copies, what is meant by the original?

We’ll pause the story of the written transmission of the New Testament to consider the spread of the gospel before it was written down. The Book of Acts records that persecution against Jesus’ followers broke out following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1-8), and many of the disciples fled to other towns and countries. Further, many of the three thousand that came into faith at Pentecost (Acts 2) were visitors to Jerusalem from other countries (recall they spoke different languages), where they then returned to spread the message of the messiah, and soon small churches were forming throughout the Empire: all based on the oral teachings of the apostles and disciples.

Understanding how the gospel message was spread in the early days may explain why textual critics have noted that there are more variants in the oldest copies of the New Testament documents than those from later periods: If you were a scribe making a copy of the Gospel of Mark to send to another church, and Peter or Mark, themselves, happen to have taught in your church, in person, you may feel freer to add, or clarify, the stories as you make the copy, based on what was taught at your church.

In the early 20th century, Caspar René Gregory developed a system for cataloging all the known copies of New Testament manuscripts, the earliest of which were all written on papyrus (a paper made from strips of reed grass). The system is simple: whenever archeologists uncover another papyrus manuscript, it is assigned the next sequential number. To date, the last discovered papyri is P140, and a number of the 140 registered papyrus manuscripts date back to as early as the 2nd century.

While papyrus was cheap and readily available in the 1st century, it was, unfortunately, fragile and with age simply crumbles to dust. This is why, in later years, Christians began recording the New Testament writings on more expensive, but significantly more durable velum (animal skins scraped, stretched, and dried), and because of this, history has preserved over 5500 additional ancient copies of the manuscripts. Most of these are copies of only portions of the New Testament, and some are translations into languages other than Greek, but aggregated, provide far and away a more complete textual history than any other work of antiquity. Out of the 5500, three manuscripts have prominence because they are nearly complete copies of the whole New Testament. Dating to the 4th century A.D.: Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, and from the 5th century: Codex Alexandrinus. With this understanding of the multitude of evidence, a more complete transmission picture of the New Testament emerges, as shown below.

Realistic Transmission of Mark

Textual critics have noted an overriding goal, throughout history, in the scribal work of the copyists: that of providing the most accurate representation of the gospel messages. To that end, there is ample evidence that many scribes attempted to correct mistakes or errors in their efforts. For example, since Greek was a second language for Mark, he frequently used singular versions of words in places where Matthew used plural words. Early scribes would attempt to correct, or clean-up the language. Other scribes made limited attempts to harmonize the writings, by adding words or elements from one Gospel to another. Just as English has evolved over time, the Greek language evolved, and some later manuscripts have signs that words were updated to modern variations (the same thing can be seen when comparing the English translations of the original King James version to the New King James version). There are indications that some scribes made word choices to emphasize a particular theological view. For example, to emphasize the virginity of Mary, some versions of the manuscript changed the word father, in Luke 2:33, to Joseph, and the word parents, in Luke 4:43 to Joseph and his mother. One of the most difficult variations is in Hebrews 2:9 where some manuscripts have the grace of God, while others have without God. However, most of the variations are along the lines of the difference in Mark 1:4 where some manuscripts read John came, baptizing and preaching, others read John the Baptist was preaching.

In the early 18th century, scholars began working on a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, with the goal of creating a version of the text that most likely matches that of the original autographs. The latest renditions of this are Nestle-Aland edition #27 and companion United Bible Societies #4 (frequently noted as NA27/UBS4). These critical editions serve as the source material of the modern English language translations we use today. Textual critics use both internal and external evidence when choosing between variants. Internal evidence is based on analysis of the original author’s theology and writing style, an analysis of individual scribes and common scribal techniques, and other considerations such as the possible influence of prominent ideas in later church theology. External evidence considers the age of the document, its provenance, and correlations with other copies that contain the same variants. Scholars have found three primary threads of transmission, where variations were introduced and then transmitted to future copies. They have termed these threads text types, the three prominent being Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Western.

Given the vast number of manuscripts, some known copies dating close to the time of authorship, the fact that most of text, from copy to copy, is identical, and where there is variation, the differences make no difference to the basic understanding of the passage, we can have high confidence that the text we have available to us today is nearly identical to what was originally written by the New Testament authors. In most study bibles on the market, the publishers have footnoted the more significant variations (from the ESV, see Mark 14:59 Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? with the disclosed variant being Have you no answer to what these men testify against you?). When variants include whole sentences or passages, they are typically shown within square brackets, as is the case with the ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-18) which is missing from many early manuscripts.

So if we have high confidence that the current versions of our Bible match what the authors originally wrote, does this mean that we can know the exact words of Jesus? Not necessarily, and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-22) demonstrate this. Both Matthew and Luke recorded the Beatitudes in their gospels, but the wording between the two is different, and there are a number of reasons why this may be the case.

First, as mentioned earlier, it could be that Jesus shared these same basic truths in multiple towns and places, and may have used slightly different wording each time he spoke. Second, psychologists have long known that human memory is malleable–each time we recall and share a memory, the memory gets altered slightly. In the 20-30 years between Jesus ministry, and the actual writing of the Gospels, the disciples almost certainly shared their memories hundreds of times over, so their recollections would have solidified around the wording they, themselves, used to tell the story. Wording that may have been in Greek rather than in the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke. Third, the gospel writers were interested in sharing the message of Christ, not necessarily in providing a transcriptionally accurate accounting of their experience. That is, Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience, may have chosen wording that would convey the truths of the message best for a Jewish audience, while Luke, writing to a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience, may have chosen wording that would convey the truths best to the Gentiles.

This notion can be a challenge for those of us in the 21st century who want to see the evidence for ourselves, but the growth of the church for the first three hundred years following Christ’s death attests to the fact that it is the message (ideas) of the gospel, and not the specific written words of the gospel that impact people’s lives. While individual copies of the four gospels, and copies of the various letters that comprise the New Testament were passed around the churches, the canon of the New Testament (e.g. the official list of 27 books and letters that are considered God inspired) wasn’t fully established until the mid-4th century. During this time, the 120 disciples that huddled in fear after Christ’s death (Acts 1:15) went out into the pantheistic Roman Empire and began to share the good news of Christ orally to all who would listen, and by 313 A.D. monotheistic Christianity was so widespread that it was declared a legal religion of the Roman Empire. It is hard to overstate the unlikeliness of this transformation. During this time, a complete and accurate understanding of the gospel message was elusive for many, because of inconsistent teaching, but in spite of this, God was still able to do a mighty work during this period. Knowing this, we can see that a perfectly accurate transmission of the Bible isn’t necessary for the Christian life.

With an understanding of the variations between different copies of the individual New Testament documents, we can consider, also, the variations between the different Gospel accounts given by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it is easy to see that they share many of the same stories, and for this reason, they have been called the synoptic gospels. Some speculate that both Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark’s gospel available to them when they wrote their own. Others suspect that a third document, called simply “Q”, contained a listing of the sayings of Jesus and was used as a source for all three accounts. It seems just as likely, though, that the stories contained in the gospels were the same stories that the disciples had shared orally as they worked together to spread the word to countless followers in the course of their long ministries. It’s the differences between the accounts, though, rather than their similarities that provide strong evidence that the gospels are, in fact, genuine eye-witness accounts of the historical events. One of the more popular and entertaining books discussing this, is J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. In the book, Warner Wallace applied the same techniques he used as a homicide detective in Los Angeles to reveal the likely truthfulness of the apostles’ claims. The minor variations between the accounts, he explains, is one of the best indications that the stories are true. Of further note, is that the motivation of the early Christian writers was non-self-serving. That is, the early writers had nothing to gain by sharing the message that they shared. In fact, they suffered beatings, stonings, shunning, and ultimately execution for sharing their message. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by spreading this message, unless of course, they were telling the truth.

The historical existence of Jesus is attested to by numerous non-religious sources, and archeological findings confirm the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts in regard to places, customs, and the techniques of crucifixion. Lee Strobel, an investigative report for the Chicago Tribune, provided a very readable discussion of this evidence in his book: The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.

What remains, though, is to know if the Bible provides us with a spiritually accurate message. Historically, this has been addressed by looking at internal evidence. That is, by looking at what the Bible has to say about itself. The two most referenced Biblical passages used to address this are 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. And 2 Peter 3:15-16 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Thus, Paul declares that all scripture is God breathed, and Peter declares that Paul’s writings are to be considered as scripture, in addition to the Old Testament. Internal evidence for the spiritual validity (but not historical accuracy) of the Old Testament comes from Jesus himself in that He quoted the Old Testament extensively. The argument is that, assuming Jesus is Lord, then His reference to and quoting of the Old Testament books conveys a heavenly stamp of approval on those books. In fact, He quoted throughout the Old Testament Canon from Genesis 1:27 (see Matthew 19:4) to Malachi 4:5-6 (see Matthew 17:10-11) and from this, the Lord is seen as validating the entirety of Old Testament scripture. Interestingly, many more of His Old Testament quotations appear to be quotes from the Septuagint version rather than the Hebrew version.

In the mid-3rd century B.C., a group of 70 Jewish scholars created a translation of the Hebrew Torah at the request of the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and at the time of Christ, this Greek version, rather than the original Hebrew version, was the more widely available. In general, the textual history of the Old Testament writings is far less understood than that of the New Testament, and so it is significant that Jesus relied on the more readily available version in His teaching, and it is also worth noting that this version corresponds with the Old Testament text we have available to us today.

Setting aside the circular nature of internal evidence (e.g. the idea that we know the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true), it is important to note that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 expresses an important caveat. In this verse, Paul carefully defines the truthfulness of scripture. He doesn’t claim that it is always historically accurate in the sense that a 21st century news reporter or archeologist might consider historically accurate (see the post on Genre and Historiography). He says that it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. In other words, scripture is intended to address us spiritually, and is not intended to satisfy our unrelated curiosities. This was a mistake the church made when it arrested Galileo for discussing scientific ideas on the structure of the Solar System.

Given that internal evidence of the spiritual truth of the Bible is circular, and therefore, presents an invalid argument, we must look to external evidence. However, seeking external evidence of the spiritual truths of the Bible is ineffectual, because all writings carrying sufficient authority to be trusted were added to the Bible in the canonization process, and thus have become internal. We are left with the same problem that Paul faced when writing to the churches of Rome, which is why he pointed out that the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16), and For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20). These truths can only be found when we look inward, setting-aside our unreasonable objections. Paul wrote that all scripture is God breathed, a unique phrase without a clear definition, but one that imparts the notion that God was the inspiration behind each of the twenty-seven texts that comprise the New Testament. It’s clear, though, that God is still breathing, and has been breathing His inspiration into the countless scribes and scholars who have taken considerable care in passing along His spiritual truths through the centuries for the benefit of us all.

So to summarize, we have strong, scholarly evidence that the New Testament accounts we have available to us today are accurate representations of the original writings, we have strong evidence that the gospel writers were witnesses to the life of Jesus, we have external evidence from non-religious sources verifying the historical accuracy of the accounts, and we have Jesus word that the Old Testament text we have today is valid for spiritual understanding. And because of this, the idea that the New Testament is just another muddled fairy tale is without justification, and can no longer be used as an excuse to avoid the offer of Christ. The Bible brings a strong message, and ultimately, each one of us needs to choose to accept or deny it. Each one of us needs to accept or deny a faith in Jesus Christ.

For further reading:

Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible
David Alan Black, Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism
Peter M. Head, Christology and Textual Transmission: Reverential Alterations in the Synoptic Gospels
Michael W. Holmes, The Text of the Matthean Divorce Passages: A Comment on the Appeal to Harmonization in Textual Decisions
Pastor Jeff Riddle, Text Note: Luke 9:55-56
The Synoptic Gospel, How Many Words of Jesus Christ are Red?

Reverse Engineering God–Part IV: What is Not Truth?

In the two most recent posts, we explored What is Truth?, and also introduced the idea that there are constraints in Conveying Truth. It is important that those discussions don’t give the misleading impression that there is no truth, or that people are free to make up their own truth.

In discussing the seemingly simple question “What color is the sky”, we learned that truth can have multiple facets, and that gaining a full understanding of that truth may take work to comprehend.

Philosophers have argued over a number of different theories of truth. One theory, termed the pragmatic theory of truth, expresses the idea that an inquiry into what is true ends once a truth is found that is useful. In our running example, we can say that for the purposes of selecting a crayon to use for a child’s drawing, the statement “the sky is blue” should end the inquiry–this statement should be accepted as truth because everyone could agree that it is ideally useful for the task at hand.

However, this statement does not capture the full truth of the question: “What color is the sky?”

A second theory of truth is termed relativism. The idea conveyed by this theory is that a statement can only be judged as truth from within a specific framework or perspective. So in our example, from the kindergarten teacher’s perspective, “The sky is blue” is true, while from the astronaut’s perspective, “The sky is black” is also true, but these truths must be considered independent of each other.

However, again, neither of these statements capture the full truth of the question “What color is the sky?”

A third theory of truth is the correspondence theory, and that is the idea that a statement can only be considered true if it corresponds to a static, fixed reality. Previously, we discussed the idea that the kindergarten teacher might have said “the sky is gray”. Since this statement would not have corresponded with reality, it would have been false.

Many argue that these three theories stand in contradiction to each other, and perhaps at an academic level they do, but for our reverse-engineering exercise of trying to understand God’s truth, we gain value from harmonizing them.

The challenge made to relativism is that it appears to enable someone to invent any truth they want by claiming that they are taking a different perspective. In one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church, he shared wisdom for that church. It would be fair to say that there are significant differences between the culture of that time and place and the culture in our hometown today; therefore, if we take the relativist line of reasoning, in isolation, it could be argued that the wisdom that Paul shared doesn’t apply to us. In fact, a simple extension of this line of reasoning would lead to the argument that none of the wisdom in the Bible should be applied in our own lives today. What might give us pause to think, though, is the fact that God has inspired a multitude of men and women, through the ages, to carefully preserve for us His wisdom as recorded in the pages of Scripture. Why did He do that, if He didn’t intend us to apply it in our lives?

The answer lies in the harmonizing. Moving back to our “What color is the sky” question, we can see that pragmatically true statements can be made from multiple perspectives, but each of these truths derives from a static, fixed reality. In the “What color is the sky?” case, that underlying truth is best described in the language of physics and chemistry. Photons of light are emitted from the sun and other celestial bodies at various wavelengths and these photos interact with the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere in ways that science can now mathematically model with a high degree of accuracy.

One notion that becomes apparent, through this discussion, is that truth is always observed through one specific perspective at a time, but to understand the full nature of that truth, we need to step out of the box of that perspective and consider many other perspectives. In our search for God’s truth, we can find many such perspectives in the many different books of the Bible. But it may take work, and thought, to discern the underlying, corresponding truth of God revealed through those books.

In Genesis 28:20 we learn that Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” If we assumed the correspondence theory alone, and ignored perspective, we might read into this that the Lord is perfectly fine with us negotiating with Him, and that it is just fine for us to demand that God provide specific value to us before we accept Him as our Lord. However, if we look at a different perspective, from a different time and place in Biblical history, we can find another exchange between a man and the Lord:  And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:18-20). Here Zechariah was essentially asking for nothing more than a brief explanation before placing full trust in the Lord, and he was punished for it. Arguably, a contradictory wisdom is expressed between these two passages.

However, once we consider the different perspectives, the contradictions go away. Zechariah was a trained priest who had the benefit of the teachings and writing of Moses and all the prophets to help guide his understanding of who God is, and to understand the relationship that God sought with the Israelite nation. Jacob, on the other hand had none of these. He lived in a multi-theistic culture and likely had only the stories told to him by his own father to guide his simple understanding of this one, specific god that spoke to him. An underlying truth that we can draw from these two stories might be that God knows us and meets us where we are in faith, and another is that he expects more from those who have been given more: a similar lesson to that expressed by the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Another notion becomes apparent once we stop to consider why we are so interested in the truth of God. The answer, of course, is that we seek to understand God and his wisdom because we wish to apply His wisdom to our own lives. But in the end, it is only pragmatic truth that is actually applied, and applied in our own cultural context. So truth is not found in plainly false statements, truth is not found in a superficial understanding of statements or events taken from a singular perspective, and truth is not something we can make up to suit our will. Truth is revealed through multiple perspectives, one facet at a time, and it may take work, courage, and perseverance to set aside our own perspective so that we may gain a fuller understanding.

Up next Genre and Historiography of the Bible

Reverse Engineering God: Part III–Conveying Truth

In the previous post, What is Truth?, we developed the understanding that truth is inherently multi-faceted, and that gaining a full conception of the truth of an entity or topic requires a cohesive understanding of every conceivable perspective of that entity or topic. In light of this, it becomes obvious that even if we do develop such a rich understanding of the truth of a thing, that we may run into an obstacle when it comes to conveying this knowledge to others. And this has been a challenge for the authors of scripture from the beginning: how to convey an eternal spiritual truth in a way that their target audience can readily understand and apply.

Every human has a complexity limit-we can only absorb so much detail before we become overwhelmed or bored with the topic. Additionally, every human defaults to their own cultural and occupational framework of reference when first evaluating what someone else has said or written. Understanding these, we can see that both the natural “complexity limit” and cultural and occupational frameworks of of the audience place a constraint on the ability for a speaker or writer to share truth.

For the duration of Biblical History, the vast majority of God’s followers were uneducated peasants living a day-to-day existence in primitive societies and were steeped in the types mystical thoughts and lore common in nearly all early civilizations. This is why much of the Bible is written in a very plain, simplified way, and also why much of it is framed in the context of the culture and lifestyle of the original authors—they were writing within the constraints of their time and place in history.

As an example, consider the story of the creation of the universe. To explain how God created the universe and everything in it to a PhD Physicist, it would make sense to provide them with multiple textbooks on mathematics, quantum physics, chemistry, and cellular biology. You might take this approach, because you know that a physicist is the type of person who would want to use this information to make other discoveries–perhaps to look for cosmic microwave background radiation.

Moses, however, when he attempted to explain the creation of the world to former slaves (who spent much of their life mixing clay with straw to make bricks for a pharaoh’s temples), chose to write: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The perspective of truth that Moses was interested in conveying was that which explains man’s relationship to God.

So who conveyed truth, the authors of those science textbooks or Moses? For reasons articulated in the previous post, we can conclude that they both did in regard to the perspective they were taking. But from a philosophical point of view, it could be argued that neither expressed the complete truth of creation, because neither presented a comprehensive, coherent description of creation from every conceivable perspective. But as mentioned earlier, this level of description is neither attainable for us, nor necessary for any practical purpose.

Since Copernicus, and especially since Darwin, a great debate has raged in regard to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture to the great detriment of many. When a Bible passage appears to be in error, we may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that the passage is in error. A valuable exercise, at these times, is to make the logical leap that it is our perspective on the passage that may be wrong, and then seek to understand what perspective was taken by the original author. Recent work in archeology, psychology, anthropology, and other sciences provide us with a wide variety of resources to draw upon in our search.

Extending this line of reasoning, we can see that even when we believe a Bible passage to be true, it is valuable to seek out the original cultural perspective because the truth we are perceiving may not, in fact, be the spiritual truth that the original author was trying to convey. Leviticus 19:28 provides us an example of this. In this passage, the Lord says: You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. On the surface, we may take this to mean that the Lord doesn’t like tattoos. However, in the culture of the day, tattooing was done as a religious expression and part of the worship of other gods, and therefore, the primary point of this passage was that the Israelites should have nothing to do with the practices or worship of other gods. We can more accurately conclude that Leviticus 19:28 was essentially a corollary to Exodus 20:3: You shall have no other gods before me.

When reverse engineering a system, a regular exercise is to attempt to put ourselves the shoes of the original authors of a system and then imagine what constraints they may have been under, and then working within those constraints, think about how we might try to accomplish the same goals. This type of exercise holds value when trying to understand the Bible, as well. Put yourselves in the shoes of the original authors, think about the cultural beliefs of the original audience, their history, their occupational knowledge and their ability to absorb complexity, and then ask yourself how you would have conveyed the spiritual truth to this audience. This exercise can help us to see where we, ourselves, may be misunderstanding the intended truth of the Bible.

A danger exists, though, when we are considering the multiple facets of truth, knowing that these truths may have been conveyed in a constrained fashion, and that is we may be tempted to synthesize “truths” that do not exist. We’ll explore this in the next post, What is Not Truth.

Reverse Engineering God: Part II–What is Truth?

In this blog series, we are learning how to understand God’s truth in a new way, following the principles of reverse engineering.

But what is Truth?

Almost every book on theology and philosophy spends time discussing exploring the truth. Truth is a strange concept, in that most of us think “of course we understand it”, but when pressed to fully explain it, run short of words.

So as at other times, I’ll revert to stories and analogies to convey a concept that is otherwise hard to explain.

A kindergarten teacher was giving her students time to do crayon drawings after they had spent the afternoon playing outside. It was a beautiful day.

“What color is the sky?” a young boy asked. “Blue” answered the teacher.

So a question we can ask is: Did the teacher tell the truth?

Now it so happened this was the school’s annual parent visitation day, and many parents had taken off work to come watch their child’s day at school. One of these parents was a world-renowned artist who had been mentoring his daughter in the fine art of painting. He leaned over and whispered to his daughter: “Actually, the sky is many hues of blue. In the west, where the sun was beginning to head, the sky was a very light blue, almost white, while towards the west, it was a deeper blue.”

Was the artist telling the truth? In light of this more complex explanation, do we no longer say that the teacher had conveyed the truth?

Another parent, an astronaut who had spent many days in space, after overhearing the artist, leaned over to his son. “Actually,” he whispered “the sky is the blackest black you can imagine, with thousands of little pinpricks of white where the stars are.”

Was the astronaut telling the truth? Certainly any other astronaut would think so.

Yet another parent, who also overheard these whispers, and so happened to be an operator of the Hubble space telescope, bent down to his daughter saying “the astronaut said the sky was black, but it is really completely white. It is only because our eyes are limited, and because our telescope limits the length of exposure that we get the illusion of black. When we leave the camera shutter open a very long time, we see that every speck of space is full of stars, shining away. Because of this, the sky is white.”

A physicist then told their child that “The sun baths our planet in all colors so that it looks white, but the blue wavelengths are heavily scattered by molecules in the atmosphere, giving us the illusion of a blue sky, but the truth is, the sky is no color at all.”

In turn, a poet told his child “The color of a clear sky is the vibrancy of life!”

A blind girl in the classroom said that the color of the sky was warm, while another classmate, one who experienced Synesthesia (google it–it’s fascinating) announced that the color of the sky was a bugle.

Thomas Aquinas, speaking of truth said veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus. That is, truth is the adequation, or conformity, of intellect and thing, and also argued that “God is Truth”. His definition of truth, though contains two definitions.

The first, is that truth is that which is, truth is the thing itself. The second, is related to how well our conception of that truth corresponds to the reality of that truth. If the teacher had not been outside that day, and had told the child that the sky was gray and overcast, her conception of the true state of the sky would be in error. We have often heard witnesses being asked to “tell the truth”. What is being asked, here, is for the witness to describe their conception of the truth without deceit. Whether the witness’s conception of the truth conforms to the truth, itself, is another story.

As the story above points out, truth is more than “that which is”, and more than our conception of the truth. Truth is also defined by our perspective of truth, and our perspective is tied closely with the purposes for which we use the information. For the kindergarten teacher and student, “the sky is blue” is true, because to the simple mind of a five year old trying to select a crayon for the picture he is drawing for his mom, the sky is blue. For a telescope operator training an apprentice on the technical challenges of space photography, “the sky is white” is true. In fact, in our story above, everyone told the truth, all while saying very different and seemingly contradictory things. We can see that because of the great complexity of the world, truth is a many faceted thing. To understand the full, comprehensive truth of the coloring of the sky, we would need to develop a cohesive understanding of every conceivable perspective on the topic, which may be an impossible task.

We can understand, though, that each new facet or perspective that we can tease out, yields back a richer understanding of that truth.

In the next post, we begin to explore one of the constraints to revelation as we discuss Conveying Truth.

Reverse Engineering God–Part V: Genre and Historiography

Historiography is the study of how people think of and record history. The view that we are all part of history, occupying a small segment of time, that our world was shaped by our past, and that we are participants in the shaping of the future … is a western concept. One of the “givens” of our outlook on life.

The warning that history repeats itself is predicated on this western understanding, and it is why we have a number of literary genre’s documenting history: biographies, auto-biographies, documentaries, historical non-fiction, and more. We read about events of the time, and how our predecessors handled these situations with the hope that it may aid us if, or when, we face a similar situation.

Mesopotamian history and culture parallels, and intertwines with, that of the ancient Israelites, and for this reason, an understanding of how the Mesopotamians thought and wrote can provide insight into the writings of the ancient Hebrews.

Since the Mesopotamians did not have the same sense of cause and effect, did not view history as a process by which a societies past actions and decisions would determine its future state, their historical genres are different than ours. In fact, our definition of history as a process is incomplete. To capture a more comprehensive notion of history, Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian, defined history as the intellectual form in which a civilization renders an account to itself of the past.

The central theme or goal in the majority of the genres of the Mesopotamians is praise. In the mindset of these early writers, there was a sense that their writings could re-activate the virtues being praised. Hymns embodied praise, much as they continue to do today, and were intended as expressions of loyalty. Two narrative genres that embodied praise were myths and epics. Myths were god centered, similar in nature to the opening two chapters of Genesis. Epics, on the other hand, tended to be centered on the doings of rulers, especially kings and the monarchy. Stories of David’s life in the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel have a correspondence with Mesopotamian epics. Laments, are an interesting genre, in that they are praise of powers lost. Penitential psalms are similar to laments, but personal in nature and often intended to invoke the pity of some deity.

What is import to note, as expressed by historian J.J. Finkelstein in his article Mesopotamian Historiography is that … genres of Mesopotamian literature that purport to deal with past events, with the exception of the omens and chronicles, are motivated by purposes other than the desire to know what really happened, and the authenticity of the information they relate was not in itself crucial to the point for their authors.

The main point of J. J. Finkelstein’s article is that the genre of omen texts, and not myths, epics, or sagas, likely provides the best account of true Mesopotamian history as we would define history today, but it will take a slight digression to understand what an omen text is, and why this might be true.

When my wife was first pregnant, she was chatting with her grandmother on the phone, one afternoon, when a bird crashed into our picture window with a loud thump. My wife shared what the noise was, and her grandmother was suddenly beside herself with distress. This means you might have a miscarriage, she cried. When a bird thumps into a window, it means someone is going to have a miscarriage. I came to learn, over time, that her grandmother had all kinds of folksy wisdom like this, passed on to her through the generations in the rural community where she lived.

How could this idea have started? Undoubtedly, years ago someone had a miscarriage shortly after they saw a bird fly into a window, and the new omen connection was formed. Human beings have an incredible capacity to make associations, and this capacity manifests in ways that we might otherwise consider illogical. However, the thought process behind the folk wisdom of this rural community is very similar to the mindset of the ancient Mesopotamians. They saw the world as a sort of cosmic matrix, where correlations existed between all manner of observed objects and events.

We make correlations today, but we strive to use science to support those correlations. For example, we understand that the polar caps are the coldest places on earth because of the lack of sunlight, and so if a winter storm comes down from the North, we could say that conditions are favorable for snow. The Mesopotamians had no concept of weather science. For them, if they ever observed a winter storm coming down from the North, and at the same time, noticed that the liver of a sacrificed lamb had spots on it, and then it snowed the next day, they would see these as connection points in the cosmic matrix. They would dutifully record these events in omen texts, and so the next time a winter storm showed up on the Northern horizon, they would sacrifice a lamb, look at the liver, and divine a favorable or unfavorable prediction for snow, based on the pattern of any spots found.

Diviners of the day took their craft as seriously as any weatherman, and just as weather scientists will record temperature, humidity, and air pressure readings in hurricanes to serve as a basis for future weather forecasts, so the Mesopotamians recorded all sorts of observations of objects and events to aid in future divination.

There focus was not just on correlations of small events, but of whole dynasties as well. For example, if some particular dynasty lasted twenty years, and in that time had three crop failures, and after which they won a great battle, then years later, diviners in the service of some king that had been ruling for twenty years, would compare the count of crop failures during the present king’s rule with crop failures record in the omen texts in order to provide the most accurate favorable/unfavorable assessment of some upcoming battle.

Because they considered such divination as the best way of predicting future victories or defeats, feasts of famines, etc., they were meticulous in the recording of events, and so unlike sagas, epics, and myths, the events recorded in the omen texts tended to be, from our point of view, the most accurate.

In the Bible, we see fragmented references to the art of divination (see Numbers 22), and in fact, Deuteronomy 18:9-12 recorded a ban on the practice of divination for the Israelites:  When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. However, while divination was banned, the Bible has a number of references that reveal the Mesopotamian mindset behind it, that is, the mentality that our own actions and decisions are not central to future events, but rather there is some sort of mystical cosmic web outside our control that defines destiny. Throughout the early scripture narratives, we see many references to leaders going to prophets to gain predictions of favorable or unfavorable outcomes (see 2 Chronicles 18). The difference, of course, is that the Israelites did have a Lord, and the Lord did have a plan. But to what degree these outcomes were the result of man’s free-will choices vice the result of God’s direct interference is not always clear to be seen.

Something that students of the Bible soon learn is that many of the stories of the Old Testament don’t, on the surface, appear to be conveying any great moral message. Instead, they just tell it as it was. They are descriptive, not prescriptive as one of my pastors used to say. In the narrative of Jacob (see Genesis 25-35), he doesn’t come across as a great husband and father, and it is important that we don’t take this story to imply that we should model Jacob’s behavior in our own families. Students must learn to accept the narratives for what they are.

A similar lesson needs to be learned from our understanding of Mesopotamian literature. It is what it is, and the Mesopotamian influence certainly crept into the literature of the ancient Hebrews. We see echoes of myths, epics, hymns, laments, psalms, and even omen’s throughout the text, and we fail as a student, if we read them from a singularly Western mindset of history. We need to accept them as they are. An epic tale recorded in the pages of scripture is an epic tale, written with the goal of praising the virtues of its central figure, and never intended to convey history to the accuracy of 21st century western standards. Rather than be frustrated that these writers did not convey the chronological picture of history the way we want to see it, we should feel blessed that the Lord has inspired generations of scribes and scholars to pass these early writings down through the centuries for our enrichment today.

To aid in our understanding of God’s Word, scholars studying the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testament have categorized the works into a number of genres: Law, History, Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Epistles, and Apocalypse. Some books of the Bible, of course, appear to have sections of various genres pulled together to form a cohesive work. Understanding that books in the Wisdom genre tend to have metaphors can help us understand what the authors were attempting to convey, and perhaps more importantly, what they were not trying to convey. Gaining a better understanding of our own western mindset, and contrasting it with that of these early writers, along with an understanding of the intent and purpose behind these different genres brings us closer to understanding the truth of God.

Up next Is the Bible text accurate?

Reverse Engineering God–Part I: Where is Truth?

Reverse engineering is a technique engineers use to understand an existing system–to learn what it does, and sometimes to understand why it does. That is, to understand why someone created it in the first place. To explore how we might reverse engineer God, let’s take a moment to understand reverse engineering through an analogy:

Graphic showing God machine - by Henry Koether

Imagine you are taking a factory tour, and the guide leads you across the shop floor, stopping in front of a big machine. Feeding the machine are several clear plastic tubes, one of which contains something that looks to be red paint, and to the left of it is another tube that is similar, but feeding a substance of deep blue. There is one other large tube attached to the top, but it is stainless steel, and you so you don’t know what it might contain.

Suddenly, there is a click and whir, as the machine kicks to life. A conveyor belt underneath this behemoth advances an empty pail under the machine. Once the pail is aligned, you see yet another tube on the bottom of the machine, out of which comes a thick stream of aqua-blue, filling the can.

Once the can is filled, our tour guide leads us over to the conveyor belt, hands us a small wooden stick, and lets us dip it into the can, where we can see that it is an aqua-blue latex paint.

Soon after, another click and whir is heard, another pail is advanced on the conveyor belt, and a large selector knob rotates towards the red input feed. As before, this new pail is filled from the tube at the bottom of the machine, but this time, with a paint in a pinkish hue.

As you are watching this, a worker walks over, and begins to turn the knobs on a third plastic tube located to the far left of the machine. This tube appears to be full of yellow.

What can reverse engineering tell us? Well, we can take a guess that the machine is some sort of paint mixer that takes feeds from different input ports. And so a question is: once the yellow is selected, what might come out of the bottom and into the next can?

Based on what we’ve seen, we might guess that the stainless steel feed from the top is white paint, and that a pale yellow will come out of the bottom. But the truth is, the stainless steel tube might be some kind of chemical enzyme that is interacting with chemicals in the red and blue feed to create pink and light blue, but when it reacts with yellow, it could create black for all we know. It could also be that stainless steel tube is simply a clear paint thinner, and the machine is applying high-heat to the pigments to change their color, and so again, it may not be clear how it will interact with the yellow pigments. So there is some level of uncertainty.

Now for the analogy part.

The blue tube represents the culture of the times of King David. The red tube represents the culture in the time of Jesus. The yellow represents our own culture. And the stainless steel feed on top? That represents the truth of God. The machine itself is the workings of God on each generation, and the output of that machine, the paint in the pail, is what we can explore in the pages of Scripture.

We make a mistake when we think the truth of God is squirting out of the bottom. What we read on the pages of the Bible is a narrative of how the truth of God was been revealed to specific people at specific times. If King David was raised as a leader or Jesus was born to us, now, in the 21st century, the color of the paint in the pail would be different. Their actions and stories would be different, but the truth of God would be the same.

When we, as Christians, study the Bible, our primary goal is to understand how God’s  truth applies to us today, that is, what should the paint in the pail look like when the yellow hose is activated? When reverse engineering a system, there is almost always some level of uncertainty in the conclusions, and so answers tend to be caveated in terms of probabilities. For this reason, engineers have developed a number of techniques to narrow the probabilities, and these same techniques can be applied to help us understand what God’s Word has to say to us today.

One of the first rules of reverse engineering is to question the assumptions. In this post, we discussed where to find to find God’s truth, but this very question assumed that we understood what this truth is that we have been looking for. We’ll explore this more in the next post, What is Truth?

Reverse Engineering God: Part 0–The Influence of Profession on Biblical Interpretation

The problem-solving mindset of our profession adds a new hermeneutic framework for Biblical interpretation.

After completing the first draft of my Bible Study guide on Genesis, I pulled together a small group of men and, together, we gave it a test run. Within our group, we had a Ph.D. research psychologist, an executive, a lawyer, and myself, an engineer by trade. All of my guides are designed to draw out discussions, and early on, many of the discussions in this group became intense as we each tried to sort out what God was trying to share with us through this first book of the Bible.

Driving home, after the study, I think we all wondered why we had such a hard time convincing the others of the logic of our own positions—after all, our own views just made so much sense to us. What I came to realize is that each of our approaches to understanding and interpreting the Word was heavily influenced by our own professional training. This revelation occurred to me after one particularly frustrating discussion. As an engineer, I was trying to pull the conversation to the bigger picture Step back and look at what God is doing here … I would argue. The lawyer countered with But you have to look at the wording of the verse. The text says … . I realized that this is exactly what a lawyer would say in court. To a lawyer, the words of a contract are truth. Engineers, on the other hand, used to the fact that documentation is often misleading, have learned that truth can only be discovered by looking at what the system is actually doing.

Hermeneutics, the branch of Biblical scholarship that explores the differing principles of biblical interpretation (e.g. literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical), provides one framework for understanding how to read the text. Understanding that our occupations have shaped our overall approach to sifting through the complexities of life reveals that there is an additional framework at play as we read and interpret the stories in God’s Holy Word.

Being cognizant of our own approach to seeking to understand the text is valuable for several reasons: it helps us to understand that, when sharing the gospel of Christ, our approach to explanation needs to be tailored to fit our audience; there are different dimensions to thinking about what God has written to us; our default approach to understanding truth may have limits; and the truth of God, as conveyed on the pages of scripture, may be discovered through many different paths.

Lee Strobel was a journalist who didn’t believe. He’d heard plenty about the Bible, but it never rang true until he was motivated to prove it wrong his own way. He began investigating Christ as any investigative journalist would do. Digging up resources, interviewing experts, and putting all the facts together. In the end, this journalistic approach led him to faith in Christ, as he documented in his book, The Case for Christ.

Josh McDowell was a law student who didn’t believe, and so he set about to discover the truth of this Jesus character as any good lawyer would do, by looking at the evidence, and in particular the testimonies of the witnesses. Josh’s examination led him to become a believer, and like Lee, he documented his work in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

In the early 90’s, I wasn’t a journalist and I wasn’t a lawyer. I was a young engineer whose atheistic views were wavering after meeting a few good men who lived their life in faith. Their lives led me to believe that something was missing, and so I began my own journey toward truth.

Just as Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell’s books undoubtedly helped many like-minded people come to see the truth of the Gospels in a new light, so might my own journey, as an engineer, help others see the truth and logic of the Bible in a new light. Much of what I’ve learned through this journey is embedded in God Worth? A Short Course in Christianity, but the journey itself remains to be documented. In the meantime, some of the additional insights I’ll share through a few blog posts. So stay tuned.

Up next: Reverse Engineering God–Part I: Where is Truth?