Can We Still Believe the Bible?:
An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions
By Craig L. Blomberg
Brazos Press, 2014
304 pages, paper, $19.99
I feel great pity for Bart Ehrman. It appears that the kind of fundamentalism in which the Christian believer turned biblical debunker was raised did not prepare him for the challenges he would face in college. He was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years.
Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, has devoted much of his scholarly life to assuring evangelical students raised in fundamentalist homes that the authorityand inerrancyof the Bible does not depend on its living up to logical positivist standards that would have meant nothing to Moses, David, Luke, or Paul. In Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions, he does his fellow evangelicals a vital service by identifying and discussing six areas where critics like Ehrman have sown deep seeds of doubt in the minds of believers and seekers as to the reliability of the Bible.
In chapter one, Blomberg puts Ehrman’s claim (from Misquoting Jesus) that “there are four hundred thousand textual variants among the ancient New Testament manuscripts” (13) in the proper context. As he demonstrates, there are only two lengthy passages in the entire New Testament (the extended ending to Mark’s Gospel; the woman caught in adultery in John 8) that are sharply contested, and that do not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts. Neither of these passages contains vital theological or historical points that do not appear elsewhere in the Bible, and in all modern translations they are clearly marked as being questionable.
As for Ehrman’s 400,000 variants, Blomberg explains, they are “spread across more than 25,000 manuscripts in Greek or other ancient languages. . . . This is an average of only 16 variants per manuscript” (17). And of those variants, only “about a tenth of 1 percent . . . are interesting enough to make their way into footnotes in most English translations” (27). And the ones that do make it there offer no challenge to the authority of scripture on matters of faith and practice. “It cannot be emphasized strongly enough,” Blomberg concludes, “that no orthodox doctrine or ethical practice of Christianity depends solely on any disputed wording. There are always undisputed passages one can consult that teach the same truths” (27).
In chapter two, Blomberg proceeds to demonstrate that the much touted claim that the biblical canon was assembled for political reasons is equally unfounded. When it comes to the New Testamentand it is there that the controversy is strongestthe majority of the twenty-seven canonical books were accepted from an early date. Indeed, Blomberg writes, “as far as we know, there was never any dispute on the unique nature and authoritative role of the four New Testament Gospels; the book of Acts” (55); the epistles of Paul; 1 Peter; and 1 John. There was some dispute (as early church writers like Eusebius freely admitted) over Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, but far less than any of the books that were excluded from the canon.
Blomberg surveys the gnostic gospels, that have gotten so much press over the last decade, and shows how they fail to live up to the criteria of “apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy” (58) that were laid down by the early Church. Just as importantly, he reminds us that the later gnostic literature, none of which is historical in form or content, “presupposes the earlier existence and widespread usage of the New Testament documents” (44). He also clears up a fallacious charge that continues to be trumpeted as fact: “Despite Dan Brown’s fiction, the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, convened by Constantine, had nothing to do with deciding which books belonged in a New Testament canon” (67).
These two chapters are well put together and highly informative, especially for those unfamiliar with the research; however, it is in chapters four and five that Blomberg’s book comes to life and shows its potential for uniting evangelicals around a firm but flexible understanding of inerrancy. Blomberg offers as his definition of inerrancy one penned by Paul Feinberg: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”
Though some will argue that this definition has too many qualifications, they need to be there to dissuade modern readers from treating the Bible as if it were written yesterday. Too often, Blomberg laments, “we impose modern standards of accuracy on ancient texts in hopelessly anachronistic fashion.” And this not only holds for things like numbers, physical details, and genealogies. It holds for portions of the Bible that, like the parables of Jesus, are not intended to be taken literally.
For those who think Frieberg’s definition could open the door to anti-supernaturalist readings of the Bible, Blomberg shows, in his final chapter, that the most cutting-edge scholarly research has actually bolstered the authenticity of the miracles recorded in the Bible. On the one hand, evangelical scholars like Craig Keener have amassed considerable evidence for modern miracles that parallel those in the Bible. On the other, research into pagan literature contemporary with the Bible has shown that the miracles performed by Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, and the apostles are wholly unique in their non-random, non-arbitrary nature and in terms of the integral role they play in the overall biblical narrative.
In building his case for why we can still believe the Bible, Blomberg effectively positions himself between liberal scholars who refuse to acknowledge the firm textual base on which the scriptures stand and ultraconservatives who insist on a rigidly literal reading of the Bible (often in the King James only) in the face of legitimate developments in our understanding of ancient manuscripts and genres. Sadly, the fairness and objectivity he shows in five of his six chapters is cast aside in chapter three when he mounts a defense of gender-neutral Bible translations.
It would be one thing if Blomberg merely offered his opinion. What he does instead is depict those who oppose such translations as fundamentalists who stubbornly blind themselves to new research. But gender-neutral translations are not based in any way on new discoveries in Hebrew or Greek. They began forty years ago when a mandate was issued to the translators of the NRSV to eradicate all “sexist” language. At the time, gender-neutral language usage was by no means the norm; to the contrary, the mandate marked an attempt by a small elite of scholars to normalize a change that they wanted to see in the English language by imposing that change on the Bible.
Blomberg, along with the translators of the NRSV, NLT, CEV, and NIV 2011, take it for granted that the convention of using “man” or “mankind” to designate the human race is merely cultural. It is not. It is God himself who originally made the designation: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2; ESV). The Hebrew word translated “Man” at the end of the passage is “Adam.” God not only refers to our race by the name of the first man that he created, but views all of mankind as being included in Adam. Those who defend traditional, non-neutered translations of the Bible are not blinding themselves to new research, but preserving the Bible from new agendas that would co-opt it.
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English & Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Apologetics for the 21st Century, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, and Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis.