Why should you take the Bible seriously? Why would you read it differently from, say, Greek myths or other ancient literature?
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a careful study of Scripture and the claims it makes for itself leads us to understand that the Bible cannot be merely a great book. It’s either propaganda, legend, or God’s own Word.
Given the remarkable events being described in the pages of Scripture, it’s understandable that one might approach the Bible with a bit of skepticism, even cynicism. Couldn’t they be making things up, or at least stretching the truth in order to persuade us to be part of their religion? In other words, couldn’t the Bible be just an ancient version of propaganda?
To consider this question, we can compare the Bible with examples of propaganda from history, with various images and stories told especially during wars to encourage patriotism. In those tales the good guys are always faultlessly good. The wise always are in agreement (e.g., “real men join the army”). And the choice is always clear—it’s a good, even easy thing to support the nation. Everything in propaganda is carefully calibrated to get you to agree.
The Bible is remarkably different from this. The stories of Abraham and David, perhaps the two greatest heroes of the Old Testament, include descriptions of their monumental failures. Likewise, the apostles of the New Testament—the initial followers of Jesus who were early leaders of the church—are described with a multitude of flaws. The apostle Peter is presented as an impulsive man who ends up failing Jesus in the most important moment. The rest of the disciples all abandon Jesus at the cross. These same apostles are the primary authors of the New Testament. Why, if this was their propaganda meant to promote their leadership, would they include so many embarrassing details about themselves?
The Bible’s central character, Jesus, is not the kind of hero one would describe if they want to get a quick following. Jesus weeps when a friend dies; he is overcome by agony in the garden so that he says that the apprehension it is almost to the point of death. He lies humiliated naked on the Roman torture device and cries out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Do these sound like the details someone would include to persuade you of the greatness and heroism of its leader?
Ask yourself, what’s more likely: that the writers of Scripture decided to make up a story for propaganda with all sorts of confusing and embarrassing details—and, what’s more, they decided to keep telling these stories even when it gets them killed? Or that these writers simply are telling what they believe to be the truth, even though it costs them everything?
And yet, even if it all was well-intentioned, couldn’t the events of the Bible ultimately be a legend? How, for example, can we be sure that the gospels aren’t just exaggerations, based on fact but distorted over time?
Scholars generally believe that the gospel of Mark (likely the first of the 4 gospels to be written) was composed sometime between AD 60 and 70, roughly around 35 years after Jesus died and rose again.
Think of how short that is! Many people around today (including me) can remember the things that happened 35 years ago. Any claims of what happened in that year can be fact-checked against what other witnesses recall. This period of time is way too short to allow legends to form.
Equally compelling is the detailed nature of writing that we find in the gospels. Imagine for a moment that you were writing a story about events taking place in France and that you had no internet, no library to help you. When you tell this story, would you be able to name the towns, the rivers? How about knowing what names were popular (Pierre? Jean?) for that generation in that area?
When you comb through the gospels, there are an abundance of names of not just cities, but local towns, all of which are accurate to the geography of the time. The writers of the gospels know that you go up to Jerusalem and down to Jericho; that locals call that really big lake in Galilee a “sea.” The writers offer lots of names of different local people, and archaeology shows that those names were indeed the most common in that day. This is the kind of information that you could have only if you lived in that area in that time or if you carefully received that information from someone who did. You couldn’t just make it up. This doesn’t have the style or texture of a legend: the details point to a careful, historical account.
The Word of God
What are we to make of the Bible? The accounts of the gospels are so carefully detailed and knowledgeable in their details, are so careful with their information, and so close to the time of the events that there is no evidence that it is anything like a legend. And yet, given all that they and the rest of the Bible include, we’ve already discounted the possibility that they are lies, deception. So what, then?
If the Scriptures, with the remarkable claims it makes about itself, is too honest to be propaganda, and it is too detailed to be legend, then it is at least worth considering the claim that it is exactly what it says it is: God’s own word given to us so that we can know him.