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The inspiration of Scripture comes in various forms

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Published: 10 September 2019 (GMT+10)
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Most evangelical Christians would say the Bible is “inspired”. Yet if we scratch beneath the surface, most would be hard-pressed to explain, much less defend, the inspiration of Scripture. Many Christians only have a vague idea how we got from the original papyrus and parchment scrolls and letters to the leather-bound collection of documents we carry to church on Sundays.

Until relatively recently, this wasn’t a huge problem. But with the rise of Internet skepticism, anybody can copy a list of “100 Bible errors” and use it to assail their unsuspecting but well-meaning Christian ‘friends’. Thus, the average Christian needs to be more prepared to defend their faith. The good news is that the doctrine of inspiration is easy to explain, and with just a little effort you can confidently believe this important idea and easily defend it against the unsupported claims of unbelievers and skeptics when you are called to share your faith with them.

Defining inspiration

CMI affirms biblical inerrancy in our Statement of Faith:

“The 66 books of the Bible are the written Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority, not only in all matters of faith and conduct, but in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.”

This closely follows The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. But there are several questions we need to ask if we are going to understand what ‘inspiration’ means.

Defining the autographs

First, we need to know what is meant by “the original autographs.” This refers to the first copy of a book or letter. For some books, identifying the autograph is straightforward. The autograph of Romans is the letter Paul (Romans 1:1) dictated to a man named Tertius (Romans 16:22) that was then carried to Rome by a woman named Phoebe (Romans 16:1–2). It is simple to explain the autograph for most of the New Testament (NT) books because the history of the book is clear. There was not a process of compilation over a long period of time; we can identify the author and when the book was written.

But what about something like Proverbs—which was compiled anonymously, over time, with contributions from multiple authors? Many of the Old Testament (OT) books were similarly compiled over time from previous sources (e.g. the books of Kings and Chronicles). But even if we can’t define the moment the book came into existence, we know that there was an autograph, and that the inspired text at that point was preserved and passed down to us in what we call Scripture.

How can we be certain that Scripture was preserved, especially since the earliest copies of the OT books we have were written hundreds or even thousands of years after the originals? One big reason is that Jesus never felt the need to correct the Scriptures that they had in His day. In fact, it was preserved so well that He could turn an entire argument on a verb tense (Matthew 22:32). Especially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that the OT Scriptures we have today are the same as Jesus had in His day. Therefore, we can take a short cut and simply use Jesus’ affirmation as our foundation for belief in OT inerrancy. We can still have interesting discussions about the history of certain OT books and how they might have changed over time via scribes and textual updating, but we can simply point to Jesus’ acceptance of the OT as the Word of God without correcting or revising it. Think about this—when God came in the flesh, He authenticated His teaching by grounding it in what He had already spoken in the Scriptures!

This is a significant way that a faithful doctrine of inspiration departs from a more ‘academic’ discussion. We have an explicitly Christological foundation, so we are not restricted to the textual evidence only. If all we had was the text, without Christ’s affirmation, we would have a much more difficult task. Building a case for OT inspiration would not be impossible, but our job is much easier because of Jesus’ straightforward affirmations.

The spectrum of inspiration

Another question we have to answer is, “How did God inspire Scripture?” Did God directly speak into the author’s brain so all he had to do was copy down what he heard? Did God show them scenes to write about, but leave it to the author’s own terminology and understanding to describe them? Did God allow the authors of Scripture to write with their own emotions and experience, superintending it with His Spirit to ensure the resulting product was free from error? The answer is, “Yes, all of the above!”

It only takes a cursory look at the Bible to notice that there are different types of writing within it, which means that God didn’t always inspire in the same way. Sometimes God told a prophet “Write this down” and then dictated, word-for-word, what He wanted the prophet to say. In other places, it is clear that someone built up a text by compiling notes from various sources. In yet other places, it is clear that the author is dealing with very personal matters and the writing is fraught with his own emotions.

In short, Paul’s outraged polemic against the Judaizers1 in Galatians is just as inspired as the genealogies in 1 Chronicles, which are just as inspired as John’s account of his visions in Revelation. We need a doctrine of inerrancy that encompasses everything, from God’s dictated words, to the overflow of David’s praise recorded in the Psalms, to the research process that led to putting together of Luke’s Gospel.

There are other factors that make this discussion even more interesting. For example, Paul often used what is called an amanuensis (professional scribe) to help him write his letters (For instance, see Romans 16:22). He may not have actually penned any NT book, although he often signed his books to mark them as authentic (e.g. Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, Galatians 6:11). This means that the amanuensis may have added personal flourishes to Paul’s writing as they took their notes and turned them into the final document. Paul’s writing often sounds more like preaching than a personal letter. Part of this was likely because Paul was dictating to someone else as they took notes, which were then ‘cleaned up’ in the final version. This would easily and naturally sound more like preaching. The careful reader of Scripture will notice that most of Paul’s letters are coauthored (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; Philemon 1:1), even though Paul speaks in the first-person singular most of the time. All of this can easily be accounted for while maintaining inspiration and inerrancy.

Styles of inspiration

All Scripture is inspired. Therefore, the Bible is completely true. But recognizing the different types of inspiration and what went into composing the document from a human standpoint makes it easier to defend the doctrine. While not necessarily an exhaustive list, these are a few different types to think about, with examples:

  • Direct dictation from God. The context makes it clear that the author is directly dictating the words of God by including wording such as “The Lord says”. Much of the prophetic literature is like this.
  • Description of apocalyptic vision. The prophet is shown a vision of future apocalyptic events and directed to write about them. Examples: Revelation, Ezekiel.
  • Biography. The Bible contains an early form of biography that presents factual information about an individual that is intended to persuade the reader about the positive or negative qualities of the subject. Examples: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
  • Historical narrative. The author conveys factual information about people, places, and events. Examples: Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, the Acts of the Apostles.
  • Historical compilation. A document compiled from previous existing accounts. Examples: 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Chronicles, 1–2 Kings. See 1 Chronicles 4:22 for an interesting admission to the struggle scholars have when working with source material.
  • Letter. Personal correspondence from the author(s) to an individual or group of people. Examples: the NT letters to various audiences from Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John.
  • Poetry. Aesthetically structured writing using heightened imagery, sometimes intended to be sung. Examples: Psalms, Song of Songs.
  • Wisdom literature. Centered around how to be wise, philosophical questions, and life problems. Examples: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job.
  • Suzerain-vassal treaty. A highly structured treaty between a lord and his subjects listing obligations and privileges on both sides. Example: Deuteronomy.

Note, sometimes these categories overlap. Sometimes direct dictation from God takes a poetic form, or a historical anthology might include portions of a letter. A description of an apocalyptic vision might also include direct words from God. All of these are “inspired” forms of writing.

What about historical updates?

There are some places in Scripture that appear to have been updated by later scribes. For instance, Moses is the traditional author of the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), but he probably did not write the account of his own death (Deuteronomy 34) or claim for himself that he was the most humble man in the world (Numbers 12:3)! There are also statements that certain monuments, cities, and people groups exist “to this day”, which do not seem to make sense if they were written when these monuments were being erected, etc.

Whoever made these statements was familiar with the lands, customs, and peoples in and around Israel, and nowhere else. The first examples appear in places like Genesis 13:10 (discussing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) and Genesis 19:37 (discussing the Moabites). As far as we could find, no editorial remarks are made about the pre-Flood world or any person, place, or event outside the general region of Israel. In most cases the remarks could have been made by the traditional author of the book in question if he, for example, were writing toward the end of his life.

The following is a table of just some of the editorial explanations about practices and monuments with which the Israelites would have been familiar:

Passage Commentary
Genesis 13:10 “This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah”
Genesis 32:32 “to this day” Israelites do not eat the hip tendon of animals
Genesis 35:20 Pillar of Rachel’s tomb “there to this day”
Genesis 47:26 Explaining why Pharaoh collected 1/5 of the grain crops “to this day”
Joshua 4:9 Monument at the site of the Jordan crossing “there to this day”
Joshua 7:26 Name and monument at the Valley of Achor “to this day”
Joshua 8:29 Heap of stones at Ai “there to this day”
Joshua 15:63 Jebusites dwell with Judah at Jerusalem “to this day”
1 Kings 8:8 Poles in the inner sanctuary “there to this day”

We can see that these editorial comments come in different forms and have different possible historical contexts. The statement in Genesis 13:10 was made after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. But since they are still destroyed, obviously, the comment could have been made at any time. Yet, most of these “to this day” statements are not true in 2019. But they were true at the time the comment was inserted into the text. This could have been done at the time of writing; Moses could have been the source of all the editorial comments in Genesis, for example. Sometimes, the comment puts limits on when it was added. For instance, the addition in 1 Kings 8:8 must have been written after the Temple was constructed sometime around 950 BC and before it was destroyed in 586 BC.

Either way, this is not a serious challenge to the doctrine of inspiration. We know somebody made these editorial comments. We know they were made near-contemporaneously with the events in question. And we know the person doing the editing was both careful and capable. However, a good Bible student should be aware of them so that they don’t get caught flat-footed when challenged.

What about changes in language?

We do not know what form the early Hebrews wrote in, or even if they wrote at all. Traditional accounts could have been orally passed along, to be written down, for example, in the time of Moses. The earliest alphabetic script seems to be an early Hebrew writing system, but this dates to a long time after some of the events described in the Bible. Also, all languages change. Even though the Hebrews held onto a Semitic language during their centuries-long sojourn in Egypt, it would be nearly impossible for their language to not be influenced by the dominant culture in which they lived. Yet, this does not matter much. Even if the author was pulling from some historical work (like some old family account of Adam or Noah that was either an oral tradition or written in another script like cuneiform), he would have put down the words into the then-current language and there is little reason to think the language, at least in its written form, changed much since the time of Moses. This has little to do with the doctrine of inspiration, but it is good to know about it in case it comes up.

Case Study: Rameses

There is an interesting reference to a common Egyptian name in the OT: Rameses. Genesis 47:11 says the Israelites settled in the land of Rameses during the time of Joseph. Centuries later, Exodus 1:11 says they were forced to make bricks for the building of the city of Rameses. Numbers 33:3 says they set out from Rameses at the beginning of the Exodus. After the Exodus, the Bible never mentions the name again.

The first kings of Egypt named Rameses did not appear until the New Kingdom’s 19th Dynasty. Rameses II (aka Rameses the Great) was the third and most famous of these. He has often been cited as the pharaoh of the Exodus because he was a great builder, because the Bible says the Hebrews were tasked with building projects, and because the Bible says the Hebrews built of the cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). The 19th Dynasty began several centuries after the assumed date for the Exodus, according to a straightforward reading of the biblical timeline. Skeptics have asserted that the Exodus must never have happened, because the name Rameses was not yet in use in Egypt when the Israelites were supposedly there. Alternatively, many Bible commentators have insisted that the Israelites must have been in Egypt later than the Bible suggests. This ‘late Exodus’ hypothesis is quite common among scholars. However, 1 Kings 6:1 tells us that Solomon began to build the Temple 480 years after the Exodus. Using other chronological statements, we can calculate that the Exodus was approximately 1446 BC, which is hundreds of years before any known Rameses lived.

The city of Ramses was originally called Avaris when it was under the rule of the foreign invaders known as the Hyksos. The Israelites could have arrived in Egypt during this time. But the Hyksos were expelled early in the 18th dynasty period. Several hundred years later, Rameses II later built upon and expanded Avaris in the land of Goshen and he renamed the area after himself. How could the Hebrews live in a region and build a city named after someone who was not yet born?

There are actually several options upon which we can lean, none of which seriously challenges the doctrine of inspiration. First, scholars might simply be wrong about when the word entered the Egyptian lexicon. Second, the word ‘Rameses’ may already have been in use when Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers were written. This would require them to be written a long time after Moses, however. Third, it is highly likely that a later editor updated the text of Moses to reflect the then-current situation as the manuscripts were brought into their final form. Think about it: we know Moses wrote (e.g. Exodus 24:4, Numbers 33:2). But we also know that he could not have written about his own death. Therefore, the books attributed to Moses had to have an editor. We also know that editorial comments (e.g. “to this day”) were sprinkled into the Scriptures and that this was probably from the hand of multiple people. It would be a trivial matter for someone to simply update the name of an Egyptian city so that the people to whom they are writing would understand what was being written.

From the autographs to today

We believe God inspired the original autographs, but we don’t have any of them today. As we said earlier, for some of the OT books, the earliest Hebrew copies are thousands of years after the original was written. It’s important to have at least a big-picture idea of how the documents got from papyrus and calfskin scrolls to the gilded pages of a pulpit Bible.

The oldest Hebrew OT documents are preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), which were written just before the time of Christ. We don’t have any other manuscript evidence for the OT for another 1,000 years when some medieval Torah scrolls show up. But in the DSS, the Great Isaiah Scroll, in particular, is nearly identical to the Masoretic text which forms the basis for the translation we read in our Bibles. From the DSS, quotes in other ancient literature, and the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint, or LXX), we can reconstruct the fact that there were no large-scale changes to the text.

Again, the NT transmission is much simpler to explain and demonstrate, simply because we don’t have a gap of a thousand years between the autograph and our earliest preserved copy. Christians took the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) seriously, and part of that involved copying and spreading the NT text around. And it didn’t take long for them to start translating the text into other languages. Thus, we have an extremely large number of extremely early copies. These allow us to say with certainty that what we have now is what the NT authors wrote. Scholars can quibble over the minor differences while we rest on the comfortable fact that the NT has been exceptionally preserved.

Defending the inspiration of Scripture in a skeptical society

It is not ‘academically sophisticated’ to hold to the inspiration of Scripture. Some people argue that believing a priori that the Bible is true and without error in anything it teaches is an ‘unintellectual’ position. It is true that with a Christological starting point, we give up any appearance of an ‘impartial, academic’ viewpoint. Yet there are very good reasons to hold to the infallibility of Scripture, as we have argued in this article and elsewhere. As believers, we don’t have to be intimidated by liberals and skeptics when they attack Scripture. Rather, we can stand strong on the foundation of Scripture as Jesus taught us to do.

References and notes

  1. False teachers who tried to mandate circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity. Return to text.

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