How to better understand the Bible
Shortly after Jesus was killed by crucifixion, Matthew records a very strange reaction happening in chapter 27:52-53. Something akin to our modern-day zombie fascination occurred – dead bodies came out of their tombs and terrorized the city of Jerusalem! That imagery could have inspired an episode of the Walking Dead series. What are we to make of it?
In a recent debate between two New Testament scholars, Bart Ehrman brought up this exact passage in Matthew, stating emphatically that this proves that the Bible cannot be historically reliable. Ehrman, an agnostic, sees these verses as problematic and another reason to dismiss belief in the Bible as being inspired.
Mike Licona, a Christian New Testament scholar, explained that the “zombie” story in Matthew is a literary idiom (e.g. raining cats and dogs) that was in common use in ancient biographies of that day. This is what Licona, and other critical scholars, think was used as a rhetorical literary device; in other words, the zombies were meant to produce an effect in the reader, or to elicit the WOW factor of this event. Ehrman didn’t seem to comprehend what Licona meant by literary devices. (Perhaps Ehrman should consider reading other genres of literature sometime, so that he can better understand how writers often use imagery to make a point.)
Other commentaries on Matthew 27:52-53 take a different interpretation. Some speculate that this passage denoted the ‘personality of the bodies’ of the saints arose and were permitted to show themselves, or that they may have been the resuscitated saints to whom Christ preached (1 Peter 3:19) when he descended into hell and that they accompanied him into glory when he ascended into heaven. Regardless of the interpretation, this is a difficult passage to understand. The point to remember, however, is that how one interprets this particular passage doesn’t affect the core message of salvation.
When reading the Bible, it’s important to note that it is written by over 40 authors, covering more than 15-hundred years of history in 66 different books. From chronologies of Israel’s history, to prophecy, to poetry, and instruction for church life, the Bible is a collection of many different literary genres. It’s honestly not a book that is always easily understood, despite what many claim. It’s also not written chronologically, like modern-day books, so if you start in Genesis and read through Revelation expecting a novel format, you’re bound to be disappointed. The gospel writers, for example, often arranged material much differently than we do today, sometimes writing in a style that would be more easily memorized.
Ehrman does not believe that the New Testament authors were divinely inspired to write their eye-witness accounts of Christ. Why is this difficult for him? I think it’s because he is a Naturalist. A Naturalist doesn’t believe in anything supernatural. (I refute the worldview of Naturalism here.) So, a New Testament scholar can know all about the historical aspect of the gospels, compare them with ancient literature of its kind, and yet reject the miracle stories. That makes viewing the Bible as an accurate account of history rather challenging, to say the least. The Bible is full of miracle stories! It should not surprise anyone, then, that Ehrman doesn’t believe the disciples saw the Resurrected Christ. Instead, he believes in a hallucination theory (which I refute in this research paper) as the reason they saw “something,” and dismisses the Resurrection event.
What I have noticed with people like Ehrman is that they don’t give God the benefit of the doubt. How is it that in any court of law the one accused is innocent until proven guilty, yet we don’t offer that same grace towards God? If we view God as ‘suspect’, then we’ll have an attitude of entitlement and often demand some immediate “proof” (as if we have a right to demand anything from God?).
If we have a foundational understanding that God is good, then we can remain humble, giving God the benefit of the doubt. We should recognize that we may not have a clear understanding of certain Biblical passages. Yet, as we remain in a humble, learning attitude, we may eventually discover answers that confirm the reliability of the Bible.
Now this is not an attempt to dismiss trying to find a reasonable answer to skeptical questions, but I think to see the full truth, one must be in a positional stance of humility that garners God’s favor. The Spirit of God is drawn to humility. Those like Ehrman don’t have that attitude. They are full of pride and that can harden one’s heart. From my 30 + years of being a Christian, I have not seen God honor this kind of attitude. He usually does not reveal truth to hard-hearts. He shows Himself to broken people. What I mean by “broken” is those people who recognize their need for Him, who acknowledge their sinful nature, and seek Him earnestly, desiring to know the truth but not with a “prove it to me” attitude. God reveals Himself to a softened heart, one humbly seeking Him. And when He shows up, there is an innate knowing.
God uses imperfect people. All. The. Time. God works within flawed human nature, and thankfully He does, otherwise He could not use any of us! Did the Gospel writers make mistakes? Most credible scholars agree that the New Testament is the most attested (trusted) ancient historical document and is a reliable story of what took place over two-thousand years ago. Did the scribes who copied the autographs make mistakes? Yes. We know this is true, but scholars have concluded those mistakes are mostly spelling errors that have been corrected by comparing them to thousands of other Biblical manuscript copies that have been discovered.
We must try to meet these skeptics where they are at and attempt to answer their questions. To show that the Gospels are historically reliable, we need to examine all kinds of evidence, including how we can know anything about ancient history, what it means in its cultural setting, the changed lives of believers, and basic inference (a.k.a. common sense).
One of the best ways we can help people believe the Bible is true is by sharing personal stories. For instance, reading the Book of John was the impetus for belief in my life. I woke up from my “zombie state soaked in sin,” to God’s forgiving love that freed me to embrace life as I had never known it before. (Notice how I used symbolism here… making a point!) Reading the Bible does take some educating, but it’s a story for the common person, and it will stand the test of time.