Essay / Philosophy

What Did Jesus Believe About Scripture?

As a part of our discipleship, we who seek to follow the Lord Jesus desire to believe what he believed. It would be odd for one to claim, on the one hand, to be devoted to Jesus as Lord, and, on the other hand, to simply set aside as false or irrelevant a view that the person himself or herself took Jesus to have believed and taught. Even if we fall short of actually believing what Jesus believed with the assurance He believed it, it is surely our aim to grow in conforming our beliefs to his.

Nowhere is this more important than Jesus’ belief about Holy Scripture. If we can ascertain Jesus’ bibliology, we should do all we can to make it our own. With that in mind, I want to do two things: clarify Jesus’ view of Scripture and show how I would defend it as true in the broader, secular context. I cannot do justice to this topic is one short article, but bear with me as I try to offer a simple but, hopefully, not simplistic, summary of a massive topic.

Jesus’ view of Scripture

It is no accident that for nearly two thousand years the church has believed and taught what is called a verbal, plenary view of the Bible’s inspiration. To be sure, this way of putting it, and the employment of an associated term “inerrancy” is of more recent vintage, but the associated concepts are old, indeed. The church has taught that verbal, plenary inspiration is what one discovers upon close inspection of Jesus’ own teachings about Scripture. Here is a definition of this view: The inspiration of Scripture is God’s superintending of human authors so that by using their own individual personalities they wrote without error in the original text His revelation, His inspired truth. Inspiration implies inerrancy, i.e., included in what the Bible teaches about its own inspiration is the idea that the Bible is inerrant (inerrancy is part of what it means to say the Bible is inspired). To claim that the Bible is inerrant is to claim that, when properly interpreted, everything the Bible teaches to be true is true. The Bible contains no errors, including errors of fact, ethics, or doctrine.

This definition comports well with three aspects of Jesus’ implicit and explicit view of Scripture. First, Jesus held that Scripture’s assertions are true. This is nicely illustrated in two texts. John 10: 35 says “the Scripture cannot be broken.” In context this means that it cannot be found to assert a falsehood. Jesus is arguing that if people in Old Testament times were called gods in the sense of judges who stood in God’s place, then the people should not react if Jesus calls himself the Son of God. He should be given the chance to clarify and demonstrate his claim. Now his argument depends on the fact that in ancient days people were really called gods in the limited sense just mentioned. He is confident of this because scripture says so (cf. Psalm 82:6) and “Scripture cannot be broken;” if it says something happened, it happened. Similarly, Jesus taught that all (each and every) things taught about him had to happen (Luke 18:31; 24:44). Why all of them and why did they have to happen? The underlying assumption is that everything Scripture asserts is true. Thus, Jesus can simply claim, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:3).

Jesus did not believe all the truth we can know about God is in the Bible—for example, he thought we could learn about God by observing the sun and rain (Matthew 5:44-45). Nor did Jesus believe all commands of Scripture were equally weighty; there are, he said, lesser and weightier matters of the Law (Matthew 23:23). But Jesus did believe all teachings of Scripture were equally true.

Second, Jesus held that inspiration characterizes Scripture down to its morphemes—the smallest units of language that convey meaning. For example, “a” in “atheism” is a morpheme that conveys meaning. Thus, inspiration is not a mere feature of paragraphs, sentences, or the general drift of a passage. Within the proper framework of interpretation, the very words themselves (in the original Hebrew and Greek texts) were inspired. In the heat of theological debate, Jesus defended views in which his entire case turned on an implicit tense of a verb (Matthew 22:32) or the choice of a single word (Matthew 22:43-45). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that even the smallest letter or stroke of God’s Word would be fulfilled (found to be true). The smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet is a yodh, roughly equivalent to the size of a comma when compared to ordinary letters in English. A stroke was tiny little dash mark that distinguished a Hebrew “r” from a “d”. These are morphemes in Hebrew.

Finally, Jesus held a plenary view of inspiration, i.e., that all the components of the Old Testament were equally inspired. This set him apart from some (e.g., the Sadducees) who accepted only the inspiration of the Books of Moses and others who held that the Law was more inspired than, say, the prophets. Not so for Jesus. In Luke 24:44 Jesus uses a widely employed threefold division to refer to the inspired canon of Scripture—”the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms”—a canon that includes the thirty-nine books of the Protestant Bible and excludes Intertestamental writings. However, in Matthew 5:17-19 Jesus uses an odd, lesser used phrase to refer to the same canon—”the Law or (not and) the Prophets.” In so doing, Jesus means to place the “Prophets” (the rest of the Old Testament) on an equal footing with the Books of Moses.

Responding to a Counterargument

It has been argued that Jesus did not hold to verbal inspiration because he often quoted from the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament produced over two centuries before Christ) and not the Hebrew Old Testament, thus, disregarding Hebrew morphemes and specific word choices. However, as we have seen, this claim flies in the face of Jesus’ own statements and practices. And there is a better explanation for Jesus’ frequent use of the Septuagint. It was a text with which the public was familiar, and Jesus clearly assumed that the Septuagint preserved the inspired meaning of the Hebrew Old Testament in a way adequate for the purposes of his quotation.

When a person quotes a source, that person has a purpose, an intention for his own communication that he uses the quote to realize. What matters is not the accuracy of the quotation per se, but the adequacy of the quotation for the specific purposes of the quoter’s own utterance. If I paraphrase the President’s recent speech to give a friend an accurate sense of his general strategy for the economy, it doesn’t matter if I don ‘t cite him accurately word for word since my purpose is appropriately accomplished by a paraphrase. The paraphrase must accurately reflect the President’s views in keeping with the general, not detailed or specific point I am making.

Thus, different gospel writers paraphrase Jesus’ speeches a bit differently for different purposes and audiences, the New Testament often paraphrases citations of Old Testament texts that are not word for word accurate, and Jesus’ use of the Septuagint follows this pattern. All that matters is that the quote is an accurate representation of the original for the purposes of the citation. After all, not every detail of the original source is relevant for the speaker’s purposes, and he is free to paraphrase in such cases.

A Non-Circular Defense of the View

How would I defend this doctrine against skeptics so as to avoid arguing in a circle by assuming inspiration to prove inspiration? Briefly, I would use historical evidence to establish the high probability of the general historical reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. I would argue that on this basis we can justifiably believe two things: 1) Jesus was God Incarnate who rose from the dead and, as God, speaks truth and only truth; 2) Jesus held a view on the nature of Scripture that is now called verbal plenary inspiration. Note three things.

First, the case is inductive and the conclusions are epistemically justified to the degree the evidence warrants.

Second, while I cannot go into detail here, I believe the historical evidence (e.g., for the resurrection, the early dating of the gospels, for their reliable transmission in an oral culture, etc.) strongly supports both of these beliefs.

Third, nowhere have I assumed the inspiration of Scripture in my argument.

On the basis of these two beliefs, we are justified in believing verbal, plenary inspiration. We believe this because Jesus did (established by premises that do not include this view of inspiration to avoid arguing in a circle by assuming the thing we are trying to justify—verbal, plenary inspiration—in the premises used to justify it). We do not believe in Jesus’ divinity and truthfulness because we already accept the inspiration of Scripture.

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