The Bible: written by mere men?

A commonly misunderstood verse reveals that God is the ultimate author of Scripture

by

© 123rf.com/AlexanderLangauelprivate-interpretation

In 2 Peter 1:20, we read, “ … no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” This significant passage can help us to defend the Bible against the claim that it is merely a human—and therefore fallible—book. Unfortunately, this verse is often misunderstood and thus misapplied.

Some incorrectly take this verse to mean that the Bible contains no hidden, personalized messages to individuals—the kind which are ‘discovered’ only by detaching words from their context. Although it is true that the Bible’s words must be understood according to their original meaning and are always intended to benefit a wider audience,1 such things are not what this verse is talking about. Others take Peter to mean that individual Christians can’t interpret Scripture properly without the help of the clergy. Not so—this is taught neither here nor anywhere else in Scripture. Rather, a careful reading shows that this verse is not even addressing how we should read the Bible at all.

Part of the confusion has to do with the term “interpretation”. Typically, when we use the word “interpretation”, we refer to the process of reading the Bible and trying to discern its meaning. Peter’s words, however, are not about people who read the Bible; they’re about those who wrote the Bible. They’re about how Scripture came to be, not how we should understand it.

This is evident from the very next verse, which says: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). It was God who initiated the production of Scripture, and the Holy Spirit guided the human authors as they wrote. So, what verses 20 and 21 are both communicating is that the Bible did not come about because any human being, acting alone, used his own discernment and wisdom to interpret the world around him and generate a prophetic text based on his own insight. No, it was God who originated and oversaw the production of Scripture, employing human authors as His vessels. Even though it was men who “spoke”, God was in control of the whole process. The prophetic words were “from God” and the men “were carried along” by His Spirit, leaving no room for the message to be corrupted by human influence.

Because this is what the Bible claims, critics can’t simply dismiss the Bible’s truth or authority by pointing out that it was written by men. Nobody denies that the Bible had human authors, but the Bible itself insists that God superintended everything they wrote—thereby producing a book without error. In addition to being written by men, the Bible claims to be “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and that’s why we can trust it.2 When rightly understood, 2 Peter 1:20–21 teaches us that while God used people and their personalities as instruments to inscribe His Word, the end result is exactly what God Himself wanted to say. The Bible wasn’t written by someone’s “private interpretation” (KJV); it is God’s Word—and that’s why it will never fail.

References and notes

  1. Cosner, L., Hidden messages in Scripture? creation.com/hidden, 25 August 2011. Return to text.
  2. Sarfati, J., The authority of Scripture, Apologia 3(2)12–16, 1994; creation.com/authority. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Creation Answers Book
by Various
From
US $11.00
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
From
US $12.00
How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
From
US $3.50

Readers’ comments

Jenny J.
Yep 100% true. The Bible is a creation of God's just like humans, animals, plants, water, rock, air/gas,chemicals and soil are.
If one follows the numeral arrangement running through The Bible, one should also know the Noble Prize Organization on given the numeral arrangements to investigate in the 1950's, also concluded that it was utterly impossible for man to have written it. We simply do not have the intellectual ability to have created it even had it been written by one man.
Given how fantastically any of the above creations are in existing form, how can it be a surprise that our Bible is also likewise an intricate creation that we can see and read but as yet do not fully understand.
Keaton Halley
I think we need to be careful here. I was not arguing that men did not write it. The mark of the human authors is clearly present, showing up in different writing styles, coming from their different experiences and historical contexts, etc. The Bible affirms that men wrote it, but my point was that they did not write it alone. The ultimate author of all of Scripture is God Himself.
Lionel T.
In answer to Dan M:

"I wish that those who consider themselves worthy critics would explain their positions on occasion from the text.." <- Given the website limits comments to 1800 characters that isn't practical. If you want to take the discussion to email I will happily give you all the textual detail you could possible want.

"Anyone who has seriously studied the bible knows that slavery among the Hebrews was nothing compared to the slavery of the gentiles. It was indenturement..." <- No, it wasn't! While slavery in the Bible includes indentured slaves, it was certainly not limited to it. Only Hebrew slaves were freed after 6-7 years. Foreign slaves were slaves for life, and could be bought from slave traders and treated as property (Leviticus 25:44-45). Masters were allowed to beat slaves to within an inch of their life (Exodus 21:20-21).

"The question of why God commanded genocide in the Old Testament is because the peoples surrounding the Israelites were sacrificing their children to the imaginary god Molech," <- So, your god's solution was to kill everyone INCLUDING the children? Lucky they weren't sacrificed then! Oh, by the way, where's the evidence that YOUR god isn't imaginary?
Keaton Halley
This is getting off-topic, but I'm publishing just because I wanted you to have the right of reply. For those interested, these topics are addressed in more detail elsewhere on creation.com, including a previous reply to you: Does the Bible condone slavery? See also: God Q&A.
Lionel T.
Take, for example, the two accounts of the death of Judas Iscariot. On the one hand he commits suicide by hanging, and the other he falls in a field and bursts open his body. What most apologists attempt to do is rationalise the two accounts by saying that he hung himself and then fell off the noose and his body burst open. Now, while that might superficially reconcile the two modes of death, is such an answer reasonable? No. It is not for the very obvious reason that noone would write an account describing the after effects of a hanging and neglect mentioning the hanging itself. The fact that the accounts also differ in several other details (in Matthew Judas is apparently remorseful, throws away the silver, and commits suicide, and in Acts he is unrepentant, buys a field, and gets his just desserts as a traitor) makes persisting with such an apologetic even more untenable.

There is a far, far, more reasonable explanation for this; At least one of the accounts is wrong. Please explain why you are not entertaining it?

"But it seems you've already made up your mind that our answers are unreasonable," <- And here is a textbook example of projecting your own faults on someone else. Don't members of your organisation sign a "Statement of Faith" which essentially precludes you from even considering that the Bible could be inaccurate?

Assuming that you don't want to be a hypocrite, are you prepared to admit here, in a public forum, that the Bible could potentially be wrong?

CONT'D-->
Keaton Halley
Why would a statement of faith preclude us from considering alternatives? Do any evolutionists put in writing that they have a conviction evolution is true? And, if some evolutionary academic were to change his mind, do you think this might possibly have an effect on his career? We are simply stating what we believe out of conviction and work for an organization dedicated to advancing that cause, the same as many evolutionists. Plus, we've already written that we do think the Bible is falsifiable. But we are convinced on the basis of reason that it is true.

You might benefit from examining eyewitness testimony in modern-day situations. Superficial discrepancies are common, yet these can often be plausibly reconciled with additional information. The burden of proof lies with the one making a claim, and you are making the claim that these are hopelessly irreconcilable. It seems perfectly plausible to me that the rope could have broken after some time, or some similar solution, and the writers were selective in what details they reported. Many times the Bible has been vindicated in what were once thought to be errors, and an error here has not been demonstrated.

Furthermore, what we consider plausible is based in part on the background knowledge we bring to the table. At CMI, we see overwhelming evidence that the Bible is the Word of God, as it makes the most sense of a wide range of evidences. So, it's helpful to also take into account worldviews when we're zeroing in on specific challenges like the one you're presenting here. I wonder what alternative worldview you think is more plausible than the biblical one.
Lionel T.
Thank you for your reply. You said: "Those who would deny it's divine origin have to say more than that. They have to say that it was written by men alone, and not God." <- We should assume that ANY text is written by men alone until proven otherwise. The Bible is hardly unique in claiming divine authorship or guidance. ANYONE can claim divine edict. Without sufficient evidence to authenticate the claim it is worthless.

"As you admit, we have long ago addressed many of your criticisms of the Bible on this website." <- My acknowledgement that apologists have "answers" to the many many discrepancies in the Bible hardly works in your favour. People like you are good at offering such "answers" (probably more accurately; "hypotheses") to explain these things, but you seem to think that having an "answer" settles the matter. It doesn't. For a critical thinker that is just the beginning and the next question to ask is "is this answer actually correct, or at least reasonable?".

CONT'D-->
Keaton Halley
I don't think we should prejudge the matter at all, but allow our conclusions to be based on the evidence. Also, we never suggested that any old 'answer' is sufficient. We obviously think that reasons and evidence must be weighed and evaluated. So, why do you keep misrepresenting us in your criticisms, as though we had said otherwise? You are attacking a straw man.
Dan M.
Hi Keaton
WOW, no shortage of rants on this article! I wish that those who consider themselves worthy critics would explain their positions on occasion from the text and not just rant.
It is well stated that prophesy cannot come by mere men; It must be from an omniscient God because we are temporal beings and cannot see the future. The bible is replete with prophesy about future events that to my mind lends total credibility to its text. Not just one but many prophets, (men and women) and Jesus the Christ who did many signs and wonders who was prophesied to come Himself.
Anyone who has seriously studied the bible knows that slavery among the Hebrews was nothing compared to the slavery of the gentiles. It was indenturement rather than starving and the law provided for the proper treatment of indentured slaves unlike the gentile slaves whose very lives were at the whim of their masters.
The question of why God commanded genocide in the Old Testament is because the peoples surrounding the Israelites were sacrificing their children to the imaginary god Molech, (2Ki 16:3) and he didn’t want his chosen people to take up that practice, which they ultimately did, (2Ki 17:17, 2Ki 21:6, 2Ch 13:6 and Jer 32:35). They made them, “pass through the fire” which is placing a baby on the red hot arms of a bronze statue and letting it burn to death in agony. Now we are burning them to death in the womb with solution!
You can judge the bible wrongly if you want but when you study and understand it, it makes sense.
God help us!
Jeannette P.
Wow! In a few sentences you have explained a verse I often puzzled about!

Thank you
Richard N.
This verse refers to the OT, since it's unlikely that the author referred to NT books as Scripture. The word 'epilysis' (interpretation) means literally 'a loosing or setting free', and alludes to a reader's understanding of the OT as a prelude to the coming of Christ. Thus I disagree with your personal interpretation of this pericope.
Keaton Halley
There are several places where NT books refer to other NT books as Scripture, but even if I agreed with you that here Peter is referring only to the OT, I don't see how that is relevant to our dispute over whether this passage speaks of the reading or the writing of Scripture. You've not interacted with the points I made in reply to your previous comment, and again you've only made assertions without giving reasons to back them up.
Lambert W.
If it is true that God had a hand in the creation of the Bible, we must take the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek to be the ultimate source of truth. There are many Bible translations currently being circulated, each somewhat different than the next. We are constantly studying and improving the translation of these ancient languages. No one can say that they've got it right yet. Millenia of dialect changes in multiple languages may make it virtually impossible. On top of that, some of the translations are translations of translations of earlier versions because the earlier versions no longer exist. We add to this the agendas and errors of the original translators and copiers and the same with more current translators. This makes it very difficult to zero in on a true translation because it doesn't exist yet. We are literarily disabled by 5,000 years of time. Instead of concentrating on the above and all the side issues that crop up, particularly disagreements between factions and theologians that seem to consume the lives of many in compulsive bids to be right, why don't we just go back to following the words of Jesus as written by his disciples. This does not include Paul. Never a disciple, a man who fanatically hunted the followers of Christ and, again, as a compulsive fanatic reversed his agenda to add multiple rites and laws, some of which were pagan such as speaking in tongues, the reduction of the status of women after Jesus had lifted them to equality, and institutionalised the church. "The (Holy) Roman Catholic Church" doesn't even mention the words God, Christ or Jesus. Get back to the basics which Christ taught. His message was simple and non-institutional and it was surviving and spreading quite well before Paul came upon the scene. Isn't that what truly matters?
Keaton Halley
You begin with a fairly superficial discussion of translation issues, but then make a huge leap when you suggest the solution is going back to the words of Jesus, but not Paul. First, how do we know what the words of Jesus are if our translations are so bad? Your 'solution' doesn't actually address the issue you raised. Second, Paul did claim to be a disciple (indeed, an Apostle), and Peter recognized Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15–16). In reality, we have many excellent translations in English, but it seems that you've dismissed a large number of Scriptural books that the church has accepted for 2,000 years—an issue that has nothing to do with how accurate the translation is. If you deny so much of His Word, then you are not following the real Jesus. Sadly, it sounds more like your 'Jesus' is one you've fashioned after your own image.
Lionel T.
You said: "Because this is what the Bible claims, critics can’t simply dismiss the Bible’s truth or authority by pointing out that it was written by men." <- Of course critics can dismiss the Bible's "truth" and "authority" regardless of whether it claims to be God-breathed, inspired, or whatever.

Are you seriously saying that men cannot write in a claim that something is divinely written, even when it is not? Anyone can CLAIM divine authority, but there can be no authority without authentication and that is what the Bible lacks. Excuses like "thou shalt not test the Lord thy god" only confirm that there is no divine authority behind it if it seeks to avoid authentication. Any entity worthy of being called a god would understand this.

The fact is that the Bible is a book (or more accurately, a very arbitrarily assembled collection of religious, civil, and literary texts and letters) that endorses slavery, legitimises racism, and celebrates genocide, and which cannot even get its story straight on details like when Jesus was born (during the reign of Herod the Great, or during the census of Quirinius?), how Judas Iscariot died, or what the final words of Jesus were before he breathed his last, just to name a few.

Oh yes, I'm sure that you have "answers" to all those things. But that is the problem with apologists; You give "answers" but you do so without regard as to whether those answers are in fact reasonable or correct, which they invariably aren't...
Keaton Halley
You've misunderstood what I wrote. I was saying that it's not enough for someone to dismiss the Bible based merely on the fact that it was written by men. Those who would deny its divine origin have to say more than that. They have to say that it was written by men alone, and not God.

As you admit, we have long ago addressed many of your criticisms of the Bible on this website. But it seems you've already made up your mind that our answers are unreasonable, without offering a single demonstration of our errors. Why not point out an error if we are "invariably" unreasonable and incorrect?
Richard N.
Sorry but you are way off base here claiming that this/these verses are directed at the authors and not the readers of Scripture. The word 'interpretation' means what it says; the reader is the one who interprets what he/she reads, not the author who wrote it. Yes much of the bible can be read and understood, but there are some things hard to understand which the ignorant and unstable distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction(2Pet 3:16). The bible was never intended to be personally interpreted, as though God's truth is relative to the reader and not meant to be absolute truth. What good is an inerrant text without an authoritative interpreter?
Keaton Halley
You've not given any evidence for your understanding, and you've ignored the flow of thought in the text. The Greek term translated "interpretation" is actually only used this once in Scripture but, in extrabiblical sources (according to the NET Bible footnote), it has the sense of unfolding, which can mean either an explanation or a creation. In any case, the verb in v.20 speaks of where prophecy "comes from", which is the idea of origination. This is confirmed by v. 21, which begins with the conjunction "for"—giving an explanation for the prior conclusion. And v. 21 also speaks of origination with the verb meaning "brought forth". The contrast to these ideas at the end of v. 21 is with men speaking, not reading Scripture. All of this supports my original argument.

Now, the fact that God's Word is objective truth, revealed to us, means that we can use objective rules to interpret it. That's why an inerrant text doesn't need an authoritative interpreter. Plus, if it did, who would interpret the interpreter?

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