How do we know the Bible is trustworthy? Are the Gospels really written by the people who they are attributed to? What about contradictions? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with professor Bill Mounce about his latest book Why I Trust the Bible.
Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He was the New Testament chair for the English Standard Version, and speaks and blogs regularly on issues relating to trusting the Bible, the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), Greek, and issues of spiritual growth.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations On faith & Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty, and professor of Christian ethics.
Sean McDowell: Today. We've got a topic very dear to my heart, and we know to yours, since you listened the Think Biblically podcast. The title of the book is from Dr. William Mounts, and it's called Why I Trust the Bible. And the subtitle is answers to real questions and doubts people have about the Bible. It's an excellent book, and we're going to dive into some of the big questions and doubts you probably have. Dr. Mounts, thanks so much for coming on.
Bill Mounce: It's good to be here.
Sean McDowell: Let me just start by asking you some of your own training and experience that you bring to the study of the Bible's reliability.
Bill Mounce: Well, I did my academic work at Aberdeen University with some of the people that teach with you guys at Talbot. And then I went and taught for 10 years at a zoo specific university, which is right down the street from Talbot. Took a break. And then I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston to run the Greek language program, do some teaching. It was during that time that I got involved in Bible translation. In terms of the background to the book, it probably more of my experience in Bible translation has affected the book than anything else.
Bill Mounce: I was the New Testament chair of the ESV for 10 years. And I've been on the committee for Bible translation that controls the NIV for about 11 years. What's been interesting is when I'm out speaking as mostly on either Greek or Bible translation, when I opened up the floor for questions, the questions were all about trusting the Bible. Different issues relating to that. It is really the topic of the day. It was... I thought, that'd be a good, it's a different kind of book for me to write. It's not a Greek textbook, but it was an important topic. One that I had a lot of experience answering
Scott Rae: Bill. One of the things that comes out kind of early on in the book is that sort of contrary to popular culture, cultural opinion about the reliability of oral tradition and things that we just pass on by word of mouth, you are actually pretty confident in it in the oral tradition that existed around in the first century at the time of Jesus and the apostles as being a pretty reliable way of transmitting information. What is it about the oral tradition in the first century that causes you to have such confidence in it when we're so skeptical about it today?
Bill Mounce: I guess there's two answers to that question. The first one is not an answer that would satisfy the skeptics. But as Jesus promised his disciples that the spirit would remind them of everything he had ever taught them, for a Christian, that's kind of a starting point. But from a secular point of view, and this took some while to get my head around because I don't live in an oral culture. I write things down. That's how I remember them. I remember them by not remembering them, but writing them down.
Bill Mounce: But in oral cultures, stuff is done by memory. I have a friend that is a church planner in oral cultures. I've had a lot of practical experience with that as well. It's really amazing at how good our memories can be if we live in a culture that passes on the stories by word of mouth. Part of it was just trying to get my head around what it is to be in an oral culture and to not rely on writing. I don't know how you guys do it in your classrooms, but there were times when I was lecturing, I said, "Now put down your pen." Because I think sometimes in our culture information goes in the ear straight to the pencil and not through the memory banks. I said, "Just put the pen down. I want you to really know this and understand this."
Bill Mounce: Even in our cultures, we need to work on our memories. But the other thing too, that I did not know was how accurate the brain can be. It was common for Greek children to memorize all 2000 words, I think it is of the Iliad and the Odyssey, it's common for the Jewish rabbis to have memorized every word to the Hebrew scriptures. That's just part of trying to learn what an oral culture is all about.
Sean McDowell: Bill, and apologetic circles in which I run and interact, I frequently hear that the gospels are anonymous, but you disagree.
Bill Mounce: There's been some really interesting research that's done recently by Craig Evans and by Simon [inaudible 00:04:48] that really addresses that issue. Craig writes in his latest book that of every manuscript that we have the beginning of a gospel, there's the title that gives attribution to the author. Simon's article is doing the same basic thing. While the name is not embedded in the text, it is in the manuscript from a very early on date. That's a really important piece of information. The other point that Craig really emphasizes, and I think he's dead right to do it, is no one else in church history is said to have written the first gospel or the second or the third or the fourth.
Bill Mounce: In other words, the testimony of the early church is unanimous that the first gospel.... The four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When you consider the explosive spread of Christianity to the far corners of the earth and that there's no contradictions, they had to know very early on, who wrote them, because you wouldn't get people on opposite ends of the Roman empire guessing that Matthew wrote the first gospel. I think between the manuscript evidence and the fact that there's unanimity among the early writers about who wrote the gospels, is that we can be really confident that Matthew, Mark and Luke and John actually did write the gospels. What's important about that is that means the authors were in a place to know the truth. They had been with Jesus. Or in Luke's case, he had the witness of Paul and his own research. We can trust what they said as being historically accurate.
Scott Rae: Bill, sometimes in circles that are critical of Christian faith, people claim that the gospel writers were playing it fast and loose with history and that at best, they were just interested in the moral lessons that come out of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. How do you respond to the view that the gospel writers were not particularly interested in all those historical details, but more from the moral lessons?
Bill Mounce: I think there's several ways to respond to that. First of all, it's in total defiance of Luke 1:1-4, where Luke explicitly states that he is writing to show the historical veracity of the truth. You don't have any indication in the gospels that they're making up the stories. They included the embarrassing statements. He got Peter, the head of the church, at least the Jewish church, Jesus calling him Satan, And they leave it in. You have early controversies in the church where if they hadn't been interested in historicity, they would've made up stuff. You have to become a Jew and be circumcised in order to become a Christian.
Bill Mounce: It'd been really easy if they didn't care about historicity to say, Jesus said, you don't have to be circumcised to be his follower. In other words, there's these and many other tell tale signs that the gospel writers were intending to be historically accurate. I think one of my favorite though is in Luke 1 and 2. The Greek is different. The Greek really feels like it's closer to Aramaic than it is to how Luke tends to write. You look at those stories and how did he find out about Mary's song and the angel coming to Zechariah and that stuff, and it certainly seems plausible to believe that he actually went to them and asked them, and his concern for historical veracity is so paramount that in his Greek, he's actually reflecting the Aramaic that Zechariah and Mary would've spoken.
Bill Mounce: There's all kinds of indications that they cared about history. And then this is right down you all's line, but of all the religions and the faith systems, Christianity has to be historically accurate. It's not just a bunch of ideas. It is, first and foremost, first and last about the person and the work and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It really does matter that these events happen. There's simply no reason to really think... I don't think these things are being made up.
Scott Rae: Bill, let me take this in a little different direction. Once the books of the New Testament were, once the writing was finished and now the text of those was being transmitted and copied and spread... The early people who copied the New Testament probably were not trained scribes in the same way that some of the later ones were. But how can we confident that the copy of the scriptures that we have in our hands today is essentially the same things that the original writers wrote down?
Bill Mounce: I think there's several ways to respond to that. Bart Ehrman has really gone after this whole issue. He's talked about how the early scribes were sloppy. They weren't sloppy. Craig Evans and Dan Wallace have done us a great service at looking at all of the early manuscripts. They make a distinction between a literary hand and the actual scribes. The literary scribes were in fact, it seems at times more interested in making something that looked pretty not that it was accurate. But the scribes that did do the initial manuscripts, weren't literary scribes, but they were giving every indication they wanted to be accurate.
Bill Mounce: Dan Wallace has a strong argument that some of those early scribes were probably accountant kind of people because of the abbreviations they used. In other words, they were people that were meticulously careful about details. While they couldn't write beautiful script, they wrote what was clear. You also have the fact that it's really unusual to find liberals and conservatives agreeing on anything, but for the most part, liberals and conservatives agree that text criticism has done its job, and that 99% of the text is authentic. What we don't know for sure doesn't affect anything that we believe. Well, the only way for that to happen was for the scribes to have been very, very careful in their work.
Sean McDowell: Bill, you cover a range of topics in your book again, Why I Trust The Bible from the canon contradictions, textual criticism, which you just discussed. But one of the objections you and I both hear is that Paul and Jesus proclaimed a different message, a different gospel. Is that true?
Bill Mounce: No. Those are fun conversations, because you want to say, where are they different? Now, they were writing to different audiences. They were writing for different purposes. I mean, well, Jesus was speaking for different purposes. He was talking about the inbreaking the kingdom of God. When you get to Paul, he's having to deal with issues in the church and issues with Judaizers and things like that. They speak with different vocabulary. But some people think Jesus is kind and gentle and Paul is rough. Well, go read what Jesus thought of the Pharisees. You can find that he is just as rough as Paul is. Some people think that Paul wasn't loving. Yet the love of Christ and how it pervaded his life are key things in Paul's thinking.
Bill Mounce: They sound different at first, but they're writing to different audiences and they're writing for different purposes. I just don't know of any place where they contradict each other. I know, for example, what about the church? People will say, well, Jesus never intended to create a church. Paul obviously thinks that they're supposed to be a church. That'd be an example of a contradiction. But Jesus gave a ton of ethical commands, and the question is where did he think those ethical commands would be carried out? Whether it be carried out in his followers, which Paul calls the church or we call the church. I just don't think there's any place where there's just flat out a contradiction. Big difference, but not contradictory.
Sean McDowell: Let's talk about contradictions for a little bit because you have two chapters in the book on this, and you take some of the most common ones I hear, but let's do two. One is kind of on the same line of Jesus and Paul teaching a different message. But this one is the claim of James and Paul teaching a different message about faith. Romans 4, Paul seems to say, you're saved or justified by faith alone. James:2 seems to say, you're justified, not by faith, but by works. Why is that not a contradiction?
Bill Mounce: A lot of the apparent contradictions, I always try to append the word apparent to the word contradictions, is the result of poor extra Jesus. This an example of that. The word justified has a range of meaning as all words do. Justification, the word can refer to how you move into a just relationship with God. The other side of the semantic range of the word is how do you live in a justified relationship with God. Paul and James are just drawing from two different edges of the same word. There's questions about was James trying to deal with people that misunderstood Paul, and so that's why he uses the same verse in Genesis and the same illustration of Abraham and the same word of justified. I don't know the answer to that question, but it certainly reads as not a correction of Paul, but as a correction of people who've misunderstood Paul. There's other ways to handle that, but I like the argument from the semantic range of the word.
Sean McDowell: One of the other apparent contradictions you talk about is a common one that I've heard, about the timing of the last supper between Matthew 26 and John 19. Unpack that one for us, if you will.
Bill Mounce: That one's a little more complicated. I took longer in the book to do it. I think the thing that's important is that all four gospels agree that Jesus died on Friday night. There's no contradiction there, because they wanted to break their legs, to get the bodies down before Shabbat started. Whatever you do with that comment about the meal, I think it's in John, is that they both have Jesus dying on the same day, which means that the communion, the last supper had to have been on Thursday night. There's some arguments that can be made that there are different meals being discussed in terms of the Pharisees wanting to be able to partake in these meals. But I think the thing that's really important is that all four agree that that meal was Thursday night. He had his kangaroo court on Friday morning, pilot Friday later on in the morning and the death on Friday afternoon.
Sean McDowell: Another topic you go into in the books is what's called the canon, which books are included and which books are not included in New Testament scriptures. What criteria were used to not select a book to be in the canon, but to recognize them and why those criteria?
Bill Mounce: Well, a lot of it has to do with authority. That there seem to be three tests. These three tests are not laid out anywhere for us. But when you look at how the church talked about the books in the Bible, you can see that there were three things they were looking at. The first, and by far, the most important was authorship who wrote it. Was it by an apostle or in Luke's case, the friend of an apostle. Because the church understood that Christ passed his authority on to the disciples, and Paul to the apostles. Their writings carried their authority. First and foremost it was, who wrote it.
Bill Mounce: You can see like in the fictitious 3rd Corinthians that was written out of quote love for Paul. As soon as they found out that Paul didn't write it, they got rid of it. There wasn't, I don't believe anything necessarily theoretical. It's been a while since I looked at it. But the point was that it wasn't by an apostle or a friend of an apostle, and so it was kicked out of the church. That was really the big thing. But the second is, does a degree in doctrine and tone. Thirdly, was it used by the church universal? When you look at the books that did struggle a bit to get into the canon, you can see that it's one of those three things that's at play.
Sean McDowell: Talk a little bit about kind of what books were debated and which ones were established early. And then if you could unpack one of the apologetic points at all often make, I'm curious, what you think about this, is even if we remove the debated books, we still have 21 key books that clearly have the gospel of Jesus laid unequivocally. Your thoughts.
Bill Mounce: I think that's a very important thing. Michael Kruger's books on canon are extremely good. He stresses that the church doesn't bestow canonicity. Books were recognized instantly as being authoritative. I have the number, 22, not 21 Revelation is kind of an odd book in that it was accepted as authoritative right away. And then a few centuries later, it was questioned by part of the church. If you add Revelation in, then you have 22 books. You have a core of the canon that's accepted instantly. That's a standard against which the other books are judged.
Bill Mounce: John had some questions about it because it was used by the... I should say misused by the early gnostics. There was some question about whether it should be in the canon, but people knew John wrote it. That problem went away. Hebrews was debated because of authorship. They don't know, and we still don't know who wrote it. We don't actually have a clue as to who wrote Hebrews. It is totally anonymous. James had a little trouble getting in the canon because of the passage you referenced earlier. It doesn't sound like it agrees with Paul. The church had accepted Paul's writings as authoritative. That made James a little questionable, but some good extra Jesus took care of that. 2nd Peter was questioned because the Greek is so different from 1st Peter.
Bill Mounce: My personal opinion is that Peter had [inaudible 00:19:41] to fix the Greek up in 1st Peter, and my guess is he actually wrote 2nd Peter. Jude had trouble getting into the canon because so much of it is in 2nd Peter, but also because it references non-biblical books. That is a problem for some. 2nd and 3rd John had trouble getting in the canon because they were so small. You could see how they weren't spread around the ancient world, and hence they didn't pass initiative, the Catholicity test, the universal used by the church as a whole. Those are the books that had some trouble being recognized.
Bill Mounce: But again, it's really important to note... Contra Bart Ehrman and some of his... the people that go the direction he does, is that you have the instant acceptance of 22 books as being absolutely authoritative and binding on the church as expressions of the apostles who carried the authority of Christ. This idea of, well, there's different doctrines going around and different theologies going around, and what we have are the ones that won the debate. I just don't think there's any foothold in reality in that argument.
Sean McDowell: You mentioned working on the ESV translation. I had a chance to interview Wayne Grudem not long ago. He shared some insights of working on that as well. Give our listeners kind of some insight of what it's like to be on a committee, deciding the English words that people will read and consider the word of God. What's that process like? Why should we have confidence in it?
Bill Mounce: Well, first of all, you have confidence because they're all done by committees. You're not going to get one person exerting too much of his or her own control. There were 12 people on the ESV. There's 15 on the CBT that controls the NIV. I talked to Tom Shriner about the CSB revision, and there was a committee going together for that as well. You have safety in numbers. As you look at the names of the translators, you realize they're really qualified people. That's part of it.
Bill Mounce: The what it's like, it's a giant Bible study. It's just a lot of fun. When we're focusing on the Old Testament, I love to sit next to Bruce Waltke, because that way, if I don't understand something, I can poke and say, "What are they talking about?" "Okay, I get it." Or if we're in gospels, I'll sit next to Bloomberg or to [inaudible 00:22:14]. It is a giant Bible study and it's just a lot of fun, but again, you have really world class scholars that are debating, have studied, have prepped before we come together into these different meetings. It's a very, very good process. Translations I found, and Wayne was really big on this, is that translations can't be too inventive.
Bill Mounce: Just because a commentary came out and say, "we think that we've got this word wrong and it should be translated this way,"... That committees are a little bit conservative in terms of going down new trends, and they don't want to stick their neck out too far. It's a somewhat of conservative process. On the ESV, I think it was the majority vote in order to change the RSV. On the NIV now that has to be about a two thirds vote to change the existing NIV text. The whole process is set up to have a lot of people, a lot of qualified people who have done their homework and then are very cautious at making changes.
Sean McDowell: That's awesome. That does engender a lot of trust in just the care and the accountability and the process itself. Thanks for your insight on that. Now I do wonder... I was just told from a leading publisher that one of the top, if not the top English Bible still sold in the U.S. is the King James Version. It's a beautiful, wonderful translation, but many who read the king James will take, what's called a king James only approach. What's your response to that position?
Bill Mounce: It's best not to get too involved in that debate because it can become very emotional. There are actually people that will question my salvation because I don't use the king James. That's just completely wrong, but it happens all the time. It's a very emotional topic for some people. What I often ask them is that, do you feel this strongly about your own sanctification? I mean, do you really pursue loving Jesus more and more with the same vehement that you pursue the king James? If I'm in a discussion with them, that's that. The king James was a work of art. The fact of the matters, normal people today can understand it. Certainly people who have not been raised in the church can understand it.
Bill Mounce: There's also, it's a different Greek textual base than all modern translations use. There's a problem with that. Jesus says when the apostles can't exercise the demon, the best Greek text say, this demon... this kind can't come on except by prayer. King James has prayer and fasting because the Greek text they use have and fasting. You have these textual issues that can cause a problem. That'd be one reason not to use it. But one of the NIV translators has a famous line he's said over and over again, is that all translations will lead you to the cross. One major translation will lead to heresy.
Bill Mounce: All these Bible translate, they're different, but they're good, but you have to be able to understand it. That's how the NIV actually gets started. There was a New York businessman who was sharing his faith, and read the King James to someone who hadn't been raised in a church, and the guy just started laughing. He goes, "What does that mean? I don't understand that at all." That was the Genesis of the NIV. This man's desire to have a Bible that could actually be understood by people who weren't raised in the church. My main objection to reading the King James would be, do you understand it? If you're going to share your faith, will the people you're sharing your faith with also understand it?
Sean McDowell: Final question for you. Again, for those listening, we were talking about the book, why I Trust The Bible, Dr. William Mounts. It's just a wonderful apologetics book. But I'm curious, you've been teaching Greek, you've been studying the Bible, you've been defending the Bible for many, many years how have you seen the positive case for trusting the Bible change over your career?
Bill Mounce: Well, I would say that actually, because of the attacks of men like professor Ehrman, because of the attacks on social media, and the celebrities who don't know what they're talking about deciding to jump into it, and the whole shift in Western culture that... We used to inherently trust the Bible, and now culture is saying you can't trust the Bible. The actual.... The momentum is very much going the other direction. A lot of people who even were raised in Christian homes are finding... they're Saying to their folks, "I just don't believe this stuff anymore. I just can't trust it."
Bill Mounce: That was one of the challenges in writing the book was that I wrote it for both 18 year olds and their parents. Because that's what's happening. They're going to university, they're getting exposed to a lot of different things, and their parents are sick, their children walking away from their faith. It's really going the other direction. Now, the positive thing is that some really, really good scholars have stepped up and have started answering questions. Darrell Bach in historical Jesus, Craig Bloomberg on contradictions, Michael Kruger on canon, Dan Wallace on text criticism. These are world, world class scholars who are really focusing on some of the issues of the day. I am really hoping that as these men have their voices heard, that we'll be able to stem the tide at least somewhat.
Sean McDowell: Well, I really appreciate you weighing in with your book. I think it's excellent. I think your perspective is really helpful. When I was able to help my father update his book, Evidence, it Demands a Verdict, which he first wrote in the early seventies, we had a lot of conversations about how archeology has changed, and textual transmission, and the case for the resurrection. His perspective is just, it was enough then to convince people who are open-minded, but even more powerful and significant today. The culture may be shifting in its perspective, but in your book, you make a really good case that we have good reason to trust the Bible. Dr. William... Go ahead.
Bill Mounce: ... if I could add something here. You mentioned your dad. I still remember listening to him lecture in 1972. It was very helpful and encouraging to me. I actually got to spend some time with him asking him some questions. But I don't get much into his... There's one paragraph on archeology in the book, but you mentioned... I just ran out of... I was supposed to write 80,000 words, and so I had to stop somewhere. But archeology would be another very positive statement. The archeology has never disproven the Bible ever. Every place that archeology has been able to overlap with the biblical narrative, it's proven that the Bible is true.
Bill Mounce: Now there's a lot more that we need archeologists to find to help us. But your dad in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, and in subsequent talks, has done a really good job of saying... My favorite example is William Ramsey. Atheist set out to prove that Luke was a terrible historian and found out that Luke was actually, well, he says, the best historian in the ancient world. He became a Christian. The Bible is still used today by some Jewish archeologist to help locate digs and things like that. Archeology is another very big, positive thing that is encouraging people to trust the Bible.
Sean McDowell: Well, you're going to have to write Why I trust the Bible part two, and talk about that and beyond. Dr. William Mounts, thanks for writing a great book, why I Trust the Bible. We really appreciate you coming on Think Biblically.
Bill Mounce: It's good to be here. Thanks.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics, where I personally teach now fully online. Search biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please consider giving us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. Remember, think biblically about everything.