What is the Bible all about, anyway? Can I really believe anything it says? While many are confused and somewhat mystified about the Bible and its contents, you need not be. If you take the time to investigate the Bible, you will find that you can believe what it says.
The word Bible (from the Greek biblos) means book. Technically we could call any book a bible, and if you study other languages, you are likely to find that their word for “book” is also similar to the word “bible”. (In English we have generally come to only refer to reference books containing all you want to know about any subject as a “bible”, as in “that book is the fisherman’s bible”.) Holy Bible means sacred book, or a book that is special, set apart.
The Bible reveals information from God. Generally it is a history about the beginnings of mankind and a selected history of what came afterward for certain people (and God chose these people not because they were great, but because He had given them the job of being the link between Himself and mankind through the passing on of His Word), and of certain events. It is not a complete history, in that it does not record everything, but it is a history of mankind from the standpoint of what God wants to reveal to mankind. Details that are not pertinent to this history are not included. (For example, a history of the United States does not include a history of China, but both have histories to tell.) Reading the Bible as a historical account is not for the faint of heart, because there are quite a few battles, evil deeds, accounts of espionage, etc. But it is all a truthful account of what transpired during the time of the event recorded.
The Bible was written by real people and is about real people. The people who wrote down the revelation from God were real people who were alive and often witnessed, in person, the things they wrote down: (Peter is recorded in Acts 10:39 – “And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem….”) These are real people living in a real time in a real place in the history of the world. Some of the writers wrote about people and events that were yet in the future (and this was done under God’s direction, as only He knows what is ahead in the future). And Moses, while writing about things in his present life, also with the knowledge from God, wrote down things that happened in the past – the account of creation and all that God wanted to reveal to man about that past.
The names of the places and the people might seem odd to us in the West, but that doesn’t mean the names don’t refer to real people who once lived and the places where they lived. Also, the method of naming children in a particular society and culture different from our own can make things difficult: Why would anyone name their son Jeroboam, and why would that become such a popular name, being found multiple times in the Bible referring to different men? But, do we not have multiple men by the name of John in positions of power today? Just because the way of doing things might seem odd to us, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t so. So, if you have a tendency to invoke “mystical” ideas about the Bible – work against that. The bulk of the Bible deals with real people, places, and things.
We can confirm that information found in the Bible is true. We weren’t around to see for ourselves any of what has been recorded in the Bible. However, we CAN see, for ourselves, things that agree with or corroborate what is recorded in the Bible. Archaeological finds are a good example of this. Men find something and, upon research, determine that it is a city that was in existence in the past, and sometimes that existence is told of in the Bible. There have been times when men questioned the accuracy of the Bible because so much of what was recorded there could not be corroborated, but with all of the exploration and discoveries that have been going on for the past two hundred years, many things spoken of in the Bible have been confirmed by physical evidence we can look at, and touch, today.
There are other things found in the Bible, that we take for granted today, that folks simply could not know when the scripture was written (e.g., the earth is a sphere; there are currents deep in the seas). This shows that someone greater than any man had a hand in revealing these things to us – God, the Creator of all things. [Has God Spoken, also in our "Links" section, further explores this principle.]
Why does the Bible have odd, sometimes quite fantastic stories? Sometimes we are confused, and even repelled, by some of the things we read in the Bible. We don’t “see” these things in “our” world today, and so we quickly dismiss it as “fairy tales”. However, any student of history can vouch for the fact that men – in different places and at different times – have a different “reality” from us in our place and time. For example, we know that there are people alive today who do not believe that man has walked on the surface of the moon. If you took a book with the account of this to a society that is unfamiliar with the progress man has made in regard to space exploration, that book would be quickly dismissed as a myth or fabricated story. However, if those people took the time to investigate and look at the evidence for man walking on the surface of the moon, they would probably come to believe it as truth. Likewise, much of what we find in the Bible CAN be confirmed as historically accurate and truthful, and so we CAN consider what God has revealed in the Bible as truth, even if it seems odd to us.
The Bible doesn’t “change” when different people read it. Men may understand it differently from each other, based upon what they already believe and hold as truth, what they have been taught “religiously”, etc., but the words are the same (allowing for the slight differences in manuscripts and translations). Many men who had a cultural orientation based in Eastern thought wrote the Bible (under the direction of God), and that over a period of greater than two thousand years. The result is very different from current Western thought – and so these writings do seem different. To apply this – we might chose to say something in a different way, but that doesn’t mean that what is said is a lie, or wrong, or that the person is dumb. (A good way to look at this is the differences between the way men and women think. On any subject a man and woman will relate things differently, because of who they are and their particular perspective, and not because they are lying, or are stupid, etc.) When we read any “old” writings (say from 200 years ago), they always strike us as being different in manner and approach – the Bible is no different in this regard.
Other reasons why folks are quick to discount the validity of the Bible are because of things like the common use of an archaic language, the English version translated into the language of King James, for example. Nothing was wrong with that language in 1611. Or even 1711. But today it doesn’t make as much sense to us (even though this language is of a Western people and it is the source of our English language today!). This is another example of how time and place can hinder us in understanding what has been recorded for our learning.
The Bible also, for real and necessary purposes over time, includes lots of information that we don’t think is necessary or interesting. The genealogies are an example of this. However, these genealogies are a very important part of the way we can prove that the Bible is a record of real people living in a real place and time, even if we don’t want to read through them.
The chapter and verse designations also make the Bible difficult to read. These were made after the text was written, and so are not a part of the original writings. The Bible was first divided into chapters in 1250 by Cardinal Hugo. The New Testament was divided into verses in 1551 by Sir Robert Stephens. The first complete Bible to appear with chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible in 1560. These divisions are not made in a way that always makes sense to our way of thinking; chapter breaks sometimes come in the middle of a major thought! And the verse designations sometimes break up the thought, especially in the New Testament. Those chapter and verse designations were placed so that it would be easy to reference a particular part of scripture for deeper study. We don’t read any other books this way because most other books are not worthy of deeper study!
How can I have a hope of understanding the Bible in a historical context? May I suggest that you try reading a “Chronological” Bible like “The Narrated Bible” edited by F. LaGard Smith? A Chronological Bible has, to the best of any historian’s ability, put the scriptures in a “timeline” order and dispenses with redundant information. This helps the “story” aspect of the history “flow” better, and you can see how the events unfold and get a better understanding of the “big” picture. One advantage of this particular version of a chronological Bible is that Smith uses the New International Version translation, which is easy to read and lends itself well to such a book, with chapter and verse breaks appearing mostly as notations on the side (and so are not a distraction in reading). Smith also includes some commentary – set apart from the Biblical text – to help you make sense of some of the more difficult things to understand, and/or to help refresh your memory of where you are in this “epic saga” after you pick up the book from a few days off. However, any version where the language used is the one you use to speak and think today, and where the chapter and verse breaks can be ignored easily, can be used. If the Bible is not in chronological order, there will be a fair amount of redundancy (as there would be if you were reading multiple history books – the Bible is a collection of books written by different people at different times and often about the same events), and that might become tedious. But you CAN make sense of it.
Isn’t the Bible supposed to be about spiritual things? The historical accounts told in the Bible are there to help us understand and make sense of some of the information that God reveals to us regarding how we can please Him and be reconciled to Him – this is the spiritual nature of the scriptures, and the most important purpose for the existence of the Bible. However, you do NOT need to “buy in” to the spiritual aspect of the scriptures to find the Bible of use as an accurate history, or as a help to guide you in “good” behavior toward others or how to have a “good life” while living upon this earth. The world is filled with folks who do not dispute that GOD IS – a conviction based upon substantial proof - and yet they do not seek after the spiritual blessings that God has given to mankind.
Some folks, when they pick up the Bible and glance at it, come away with an idea that the Bible is filled with MYSTICAL things. Merriam-Webster defines “mystical” as “something having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality”. If the Bible were mystical, it could not have any basis in reality, it could not be objective, and it could not contain anything that could be detected by the senses or intelligence. That description is just about as far as you can get from a historical account, which the Bible most certainly is.
Other folks, upon reading the Bible, come to discern that the Bible is God’s Word, written down by real men over time under God’s guidance, and this becomes the source by which they determine what is pleasing to God, what, if anything, they can do to be reconciled to Him, how they can have faith in His promises, and all the ways that they can KNOW THAT GOD IS. This, then, becomes the foundation for their faith in God, and the information revealed in the Bible by God becomes the standard, or guide, by which they lead their lives. This process takes time; it is a process of growing in understanding and knowledge, and no person ever becomes “perfect” at knowing, understanding, and putting into practice all of God’s Word. SO – if you have seen well intentioned “religious people” do “bad things”, attribute such to their being “incomplete” in the knowledge of God, but do not use their behavior to conclude that God doesn’t exist, and that the Bible is not a book of truth that we can confirm under close investigation. God DOES exist, and the Bible IS His Word and is truth, and this CAN be confirmed when put to the test.