Author Interview: Timothy Paul Jones explains why the Bible is still trustworthy
A conversation with Timothy Paul Jones about his new book, “Why Should I Trust The Bible?”
—Question 1: What challenges to the Bible’s reliability do students face today?
—Question 2:How would you distinguish your approach from other forms of apologetics?
—Question 3:Why should a reasonable person believe the Bible?
Full Interview Transcript
In a skeptical culture, it’s easy for people to think that the Bible is a cobbled–together collection of ancient writings that have been changed so many times by so many people over the centuries that they can’t be trusted. Timothy Paul Jones, Professor of Apologetics and Director of the Center for Christian Apologetics at Southern Seminary, has written a number of books that aim to build up believers’ confidence in the Bible’s integrity in the midst of our dissenting culture. But his newest book has a different aim. His newest work, Why Should I Trust the Bible?, explores the same issues from the perspective of an unbelieving skeptic.
This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jared Kennedy: In early 2020, Timothy Paul Jones is releasing a new book with Christian Focus Publications entitled, Why Should I Trust The Bible? It tackles tough questions about the Bible’s reliability and the reliability of the entire Christian faith. Dr. Jones, thank you for your time.
Timothy Paul Jones: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
JK: Why did you write Why Should I Trust The Bible?
TPJ: Well, I wrote it because I recognized that several of the books I had done were about the history, integrity, and reliability of Scripture, and they were aimed at believers, and I wanted to write something that was not aimed at believers but aimed at unbelievers. And that’s what this book really is; it takes some of the same information, but really looks at it from the perspective of the unbeliever and tries to help them see that there is a reasonable case to be made for the reliability of the Bible and for the trustworthiness of the Bible.
JK: You start out the book talking about the ways your own faith was challenged when you headed off to college. How does the book address the kinds of doubts you faced during that period of your own life?
TPJ: This book is grounded in my own biography. I think all books are, but this one is much more explicitly grounded in my own biography. And what I mean by that is I went to college believing in the King James Version was the only legitimate translation of the Bible. That’s what I’d been raised to believe and all sorts of things like that. I got to college and started taking classes in Greek and in New Testament and in history and in all of these things and reading on my own voraciously, just trying to learn more about these things. And I realized, I recognized that in the midst of all of that, that many of the things, in fact, most of the reasons I had been told for why the Bible was believable at all were actually not true.
I was told that there was this perfect manuscript of the Bible that had been preserved all of these years called the Textus Receptus. And I found out that the Textus Receptus wasn’t a manuscript of the Bible at all. It’s a printed succession of Greek New Testaments beginning in the 16th century, none of which completely agree with one another and from one edition to the next. I found out all these different things that just challenged my faith, and my faith just began to fall apart because every reason I’d been given turned out to be not completely correct.
And so, part of the reason I do apologetics is precisely because I want people not to have to face those type of issues in the same way that I faced them. I want people to face these issues, but not from a perspective of, “I’ve been told things about the Bible and reasons the Bible is true that really aren’t true at all.” And so, this book grows out of that, and it tries to address the issues that I wish somebody would’ve told me, which are things like being honest about the fact that the manuscripts of the Bible do differ from one another. There’s not a single manuscript, hand copied manuscript, of the New Testament or the Old Testament that agrees 100% with every other manuscript. It just doesn’t. There’s differences in the manuscripts. There are copying variations. There are significant issues in those copying variations that we need to wrestle with.
There are significant questions to be raised about historicity and reliability of these texts and I wish somebody would have raised those issues and given answers to them because what I’ve realized over the years is that there are answers to those questions. We’re not without answers to those questions, but I didn’t know those answers, and I had to go find them on my own in a way that I felt very afraid, because I felt like my faith was going away in the midst of that. And in searching for those things on my own, most of what I found was actually really bad content that was actually attacking the Bible. It was easier at that time to find things attacking the Bible than supporting the Bible.
And I think we’re in a different stage right now than we were in the early ’90s, which was when that happened, where it’s at least equally as easy to find things supporting the Bible as attacking the Bible. But then it was much easier for me to find things that attacked the Bible than things that supported the Bible. But part of what I’m wanting to do in this book is really to help people see there are real issues, but there are also reasons and answers to be given in response to those very real issues.
JK: You talked about growing in more of a fundamentalist background and how those specific beliefs were challenged. Kids today heading off to college, it seems like there may be new issues that are confronting them. What are the new issues that face a college student today that’d be different from what you experienced when you went off to college? And how do you address these new objections to the Bible’s reliability that have arisen?
TPJ: Right. I think there are three basic areas that are different than they were when I was going into college. One of those areas is, one that we’re familiar with, that they’re going to be challenged at the level of how can you possibly believe the Bible when it says what it says about our sexuality? That sexuality and your sexual orientation is considered by many in our culture to be something you choose. It’s your personal selection rather than something that is divinely ordained and beautiful and amazing in God’s design. And I think that we have to help them understand that the foundation of your faith is not whether it is palatable to the culture, because that is the full argument sometimes. How can you believe the Bible when it says this, as if the Bible ceases to be believable because it’s offensive.
And I think that’s one of the things we have to help people understand is whether or not the Bible is right on this, obviously we believe that it is, but whether or not the Bible is right, the offensiveness of it isn’t what makes it right or wrong. And there’s an idea in our culture that that which is offensive can’t possibly be true. And so, that’s one of the areas that we have to help them deal with. And I think in that, we help drive them back to the resurrection of Jesus. That’s the foundation of your belief. And then the Bible, what we believe about the Bible, flows out of that. But we have to help them to understand that offensiveness doesn’t make anything true or false. And so, that’s one of the areas that I think is really important. The second area that I think is really important is to do with the challenges that are being faced is there is a much stronger kind of an incapacity of students now to be able to deal with the problem of evil.
That’s one of the things that I think I see that has risen much higher than I ever saw it as a student minister in the late ’90s and early 2000s, or as a student in college in the early ’90s. That is a much bigger deal right now for students than it ever has been before. I think part of it is that they have an idea which is what Christian Smith called moralistic therapeutic deism. This idea that the purpose of God is to make my life better and to make me feel better. And so, the idea of the problem of evil is something that they have a hard time dealing with because clearly God is not making things feel better for me in the problem of evil, of making things feel better. So, I think that’s another challenge.
The other one, and this is the one that is more relevant to my book, is what I would call a democratization of skepticism. And what I mean by a democratization of skepticism is this: in the ’90s a lot of these issues were up at the “Jesus seminar” level, a group of academics gathering together, and you might hear occasionally something on the news that happens in the “Jesus seminar”, but it really didn’t affect ordinary people. So, what has happened is a democratization of skepticism, by which I mean that skepticism has become mainstream instead of academic. We see that in the New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harrison and people like that. We see it in Bart Ehrman, his books that are attacking the authenticity and integrity of the scriptures. We see it in instances where the books that are doing this aren’t things that are being produced by scholars up in an ivory tower, it’s books that are making the New York Times Best Seller List.
In the past, even if a book that is skeptical at some level makes a bestseller list, it’s going to be like a conspiracy theory, some kind of odd conspiracy theory thing. But now it’s serious scholars with doctoral degrees in particular areas who are writing attacks on Christianity, but they’re writing them in a way that addresses people at a level of lay people. So, we’ve got this skepticism that is kind of part of the mainstream of the culture. And I think that really affects our students because at that point, skepticism seems like one of several alternatives. And I would say in most instances skepticism is almost viewed as the neutral setting, and that’s what’s often described as secularization.
One type of secularization is that people perceive, they perceive that skepticism or unbelief is more natural or more neutral than belief, which is of course, if we look at the scope of human history, is an odd aberration in the entire history of humanity. But yet it’s much, much more common. Just to give a quick example of that, I was several years ago at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, giving a series of lectures that were sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. And there were probably 800 or 900 students at one of these sessions. At the end, there was a question and answer, and a young lady came forward and the question she asked was this, she said, “Dr Ehrman is an agnostic, so he’s neutral about this. He’s unbiased.” Ehrman, of course, teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, and is a prominent agnostic, who recently called himself an atheist. “He’s unbiased,” she said. “You’re a Christian, so you’re biased. So, why should we listen to you instead of him?” And to her that just seemed like the most perfectly natural, normal response to the discussion. Agnosticism is unbiased, Christianity is biased. And that helps us to see the degree to which some of this has worked its way into the mainstream, that for her that just seemed as natural and normal an observation. There was nothing surprising about it.
And what I tried to help her understand is we both are biased. Agnosticism is its own type of bias. It is in essence declaring there is insufficient evidence for me to believe. It is a bias about things. The question is, which of our biases best fits reality? But it was clear that that was a brand-new idea for her. The idea that somebody who was an agnostic, an unbeliever, saying, “there’s not enough evidence for me to believe”, that that is somehow not unbiased, but rather is an actual belief system to itself.
JK: Even if the college freshman hasn’t read one of those New York Times bestsellers yet, it’s pretty likely one of their professors at a major state university may have written it or at least they have read it and they’re trafficking in that world. You get stuck in an elevator at the University of Louisville and a college freshman is there and you want to give your 90 second elevator pitch for your book for why should he or she should trust the Bible. What would you say to that freshman?
I would say to them, even if you look at the Gospels not as the inspired word of God, which I obviously believe they are, but even if you look at them not as the inspired word of God, but as historical texts, simply as artifacts from history, there are good reasons to think that what they have to say about Jesus is true or at the very least it’s plausible, historically. If in fact Jesus was raised from the dead, which is the event that is most clearly articulated and most plausible in the sense of multiple sources declaring the same event on the third day, the resurrection of Jesus. If that’s true, first off, an inspired book isn’t entirely unbelievable, if there’s a resurrection.
Secondly, if that is true, Jesus believed what is in the Old Testament, and he sent out the people, commissioned the people who were connected to those who wrote the New Testament. Think about it: If what is reported about Jesus is plausible, not as inspired word of God, we’ll get there later, but just at the level of these being historical texts. If it is plausible then that would mean that the idea of trusting the Bible is not a crazy idea, and I would just try to open the door in that way. Try to aim them toward the resurrection and open the door to if this in fact this happened, then this is not implausible for there to be a trustworthy text that we believe in as well.
JK: You’re talking about plausibility in chapter one of the book, you say faith is a disposition of trust that includes evidence, that includes us thinking about that plausibility. I think your emphasis on evidence and warranted faith is really refreshing, especially for those of us from Reformed tribe. How would you distinguish your approach from that of a strictly evidential apologist or from an evidentialist epistemology?
Well, let’s start with an evidentialist epistemology, because I think it’s important that we reject an evidentialist epistemology, because an evidentialist epistemology requires that everything that we believe begins with an incorrigible or indisputable fact from which we deduce everything else. That’s a true evidentialist epistemology: everything we should believe, begins with an incorrigible or indisputable fact, a foundational truth from which everything else must be logically deduced based on other incorrigible facts or evidences. Now, the reason we have to reject that is two-fold. First off, as Alvin Plantinga very clearly articulates in his works on Reformed epistemology, life doesn’t really work that way. That’s not how we actually think. That’s not how life functions or anything like that. He has articulated that we can’t even think reasonably if we require everything to come from an incorrigible fact or foundation.
The other thing is it’s an irrational claim that everything we believe should be based on an incorrigible foundation because that statement can’t meet its own qualification because there is no incorrigible foundation from which you should believe that everything has to be based on evidence that is based on an incorrigible foundation. It doesn’t meet its own qualification. That type of an evidentialist epistemology has to be rejected. When we speak in apologetics of evidentialism, there are some affinities between those two, but it’s actually something slightly different. In evidentialism, in apologetics, what we’re actually saying is that we build a case based, usually on the resurrection, but not necessarily always, we build a case that is more of a looser foundationalism. That is to say that this becomes plausible as we add up the evidence and deduce different evidences.
Now, my own evidential approach in this book, I would distinguish from what is often called evidentialism and apologetics on this basis. There is a tendency in most evidential apologetics to, in essence, I’m going to paraphrase and broad brush just a little bit here, to say that there is no other logical possibility other than that these things really happened and if I just present all the right evidence then there’s a clear case that must be believed for Christianity if I just present and build this case, build up all the evidence. Well, the fact is what that doesn’t recognize is what we as Reformed believers must and do recognize, which is that the central reason why somebody doesn’t believe is not because there’s not enough evidence. The central reason why somebody doesn’t believe is because their minds are darkened and their minds are incapable of recognizing the truth and they’re not incapable of recognizing the truth because the truth is not there or because they cannot recognize it, but rather because they are willfully unable to recognize the truth.
Okay, so that’s in evidential apologetics, the idea is often that you can build a case, and then the person will just believe if they actually follow your evidence all the way. The fact is, as reformed believers we recognize that Romans 1, that everybody already knows there is a God and in what we’re doing in apologetics is trying to unmask the unbelief that they are holding to with a closed fist in refusing to believe. Ultimately, what will bring somebody to belief is not the evidence, but it is the work of the Spirit of God in their lives. That’s why in the very first chapter and in the last chapter, I frame the book on both ends with a statement that I know is going to be offensive to the unbeliever reading it. At the beginning of the book I just point out, I think that if you come to faith in Jesus that the Spirit of God was at work to bring that about. I just state that in the first chapter and let the person know, I know that you probably don’t agree with me, but this is where I’m coming from in this and I’m not trying to convince you of this, I’m just letting you know.
At the very end of the book, the last two paragraphs of the entire book, I basically say, you know what, I haven’t presented all the evidence that there is for the case I’m making, but at this point more evidence wouldn’t cause you to believe. I just point that out at the end of the book. It’s not more evidence that you need. What you need is a desire for the type of world that the world would be if this were true. That can only come by the work of God. I think the difference between this and a kind of a typical apologetic evidentialism is that I am presenting evidence, but I am presenting evidence knowing full well that my evidence alone does not convince a person to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
I cannot believe in Romans 1 and say that my evidence will bring you to faith in Jesus Christ or Romans 3 or Ephesians 2, or we can go on and on and on, but I want us to understand that. That’s not what keeps somebody from faith. What keeps somebody from faith is the fact that our minds are darkened and fallen and affected by the fall of humanity in such a way that apart from the work of the Spirit of God, nobody will ever desire to believe in Jesus or to believe in the type of world the world would be if all of this were true.
JK: Then on the other side of that is the evidence we have from Romans 10 and from the book of Revelation: they overcame, by the blood of the lamb and the power of their testimony. Even believing it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to make someone alive, we believe that through that testimony, whether it’s the testimony of historical evidence or a personal testimony that someone shares, God works to bring life. What I found refreshing about your reproach was this idea of persuasion and wanting to give evidence to persuade someone, is a really important part of our witness and an important part of what we do.
Let me dive a little deeper into your argument. In chapter two, you argue that the Gospels share some characteristics with ancient novelistic biographies. To my modernist ears, describing the Gospels as novelistic sounds like saying they’re something less than historical, but you actually understand the Gospel writers using novelistic style as something else, as evidence of their intended audience. Can you explain that?
TPJ: Yeah, I think it’s important. One of the things that sometimes isn’t dealt adequately with – and I will have to say, it has been dealt adequately with now in a book by Craig Keener called Christobiography, and I did not have access to this book before writing mine. As I’m working through Keener’s book, now, I’m seeing he’s actually starting to deal with some of these issues, but I didn’t have access to that book when I wrote this book. I think something that is not adequately taken account of in many apologetics and in many analysis of the Gospels is the fact that there are some affinities between the Gospels and ancient novelistic biographies, and I think we need to take that seriously.
The more common style of writing, the less elevated style of writing, the fact of writing it in the third person without the author being explicitly named, that is to say there’s never any point in the Gospels, in the texts themselves, I’m not talking about the titles, but the text themselves in which the author says, I am the author of this book and gives a specific name. It’s hinted at in Luke 1, a couple of times in John’s Gospel, but it’s really not explicitly spelled out and stated, “this is my name and I’m the author of this book”, anything like that. The free borrowing from other sources without citing those sources, Matthew and Luke incorporate vast amounts of Mark’s Gospel without ever saying where they got it from. Well, all of those things. In the ancient world, there are several biographies like that and they are novelistic – that is to say, they are more fictionalized retellings. The romance of Alexander is one of those, there are several others that are that way. One of the things we have to deal with is if there are affinities between the New Testament Gospels and those, should we think that the Gospels are somewhat fictional, and I just think we have to wrestle with that question.
Obviously, I don’t believe the Gospels are fictional, but I want us to wrestle with the question of, “Why not? Why are they not?” So, the argument I make in the book is first off, that we should not view the Gospels as fictional, for a lot of different reasons, but in part because the things that they are saying in the Gospels are also reiterated in the Epistles. That is to say, if they’re not just in that one genre, but they’re in multiple genres and in those multiple genres, even in the more epistolary genres, they’re still affirming the miraculous truths that are in the Gospels. So, I think that’s an important thing to recognize.
I think another one to recognize is that part of the reason that they incorporate other sources freely, don’t name the authors, is because the New Testament authors are trying to structure what they write to look a lot like the Old Testament, and the Old Testament history books are written that way. And so, in that sense it’s almost kind of an accidental thing that there are some affinities with novelistic biographies, simply because they are actually not trying to imitate novelistic biographies. What they’re trying to imitate is the Old Testament, and so they write in continuity with the Old Testament.
The other reason is – and I think this is important for us to recognize – that the Gospels are written in a style similar to novelistic biographies because of their intended audience. The intended audience is not the highbrow crowd. It’s not those who are in power. It’s not those who are wealthy. That’s not who they’re aiming for. The Gospels are written for everybody. The Gospels are written for the ordinary person. The Gospels were written to be circulated and to be read widely by people who were not necessarily the upper echelons of society, and I think it’s important for us to recognize that that is part of the reason as well. No, it’s not written anything like the works of Plutarch or Suetonius or anything like that, but why? It’s because their writings were intended to impress a particular type of people that are in the upper echelon of society. The Gospels were not written to impress. The Gospels are written to transform, and they’re written for a multiplicity of people and people who are from the lowest to the highest ranges of society.
JK: It sounds like you’re saying you’d pick them up at the paperback rack at Walmart.
TPJ: Exactly. That’s one way to put it. Yeah, that’s one way to put it. You aren’t going to go to the university bookstore to the academic section to buy the Gospels, if we were to put ourselves back there. You’re going to go, yeah, to the paperback section. I think about it this way: It’s some of the books that are nonfiction but are at the truck stop over beside the potato chip aisle. I mean, that’s where you’re going to pick the Gospels up, something that’s a very ordinary writing for a very ordinary place. And I think that that’s who they’re intended for.
JK: In your final chapter, you talk about how one barrier to the faith is the way Christians, both throughout history and today, have used the Bible in ways that are abusive to the Bible. So many today find it difficult to trust a book that was used to justify the crusades or used to justify chattel slavery. How would you answer the individual who’s struggling with that objection?
TPJ: Well, my answer is the Beatles’ White Album. As we all know, the Beatles’ White Album, especially the song “Helter Skelter” was used by Charles Manson as an excuse for the Manson murders. He felt like the White Album was calling him to commit all of these murders, and yet nobody has ever indicted Paul McCartney for those murders. And the reason that they haven’t is because of the fact that the misuse of the White Album doesn’t reflect on its creator. Just because the White Album was misused doesn’t mean the creator of it was at fault.
And I think we have to help people recognize that: the Bible is used [to justify terrible things]. But was it rightly used for these things? So I think the first question we have to help that student answer is, was the bible being rightly used? And this goes back to an issue of hermeneutics. And a lot of our failure with our students is we don’t teach them basic hermeneutics. And we have to help them understand how to interpret the Bible well and how to recognize misinterpretations of the Bible. And so, one of the most important things we can do for apologetics, oddly enough, is to teach our students basic hermeneutics, how to read the Bible well, how to know when somebody is not reading the Bible well. That’s one of the areas that I want us to think through. That’s one of the areas that I think is important that I kind of deal with is in this book, basically go through at the end just some really basic hermeneutics.
Now, beyond that, that doesn’t solve every problem. I’m not even claiming that it does, but it solves most of the problems that we have with the Bible, and that lets us get to the real issues, the issues that we have to wrestle with, in which there’s multiple answers to that still honor the inerrancy and the authority of God’s word, about issues like the Israelites slaughtering everybody among the Canaanites. What does that really mean? But we don’t get to a rational and reasonable and helpful discussion of those very real issues like that until we get past all of these false issues and these facades that really are really non-starters in terms of an argument because the Bible has been misused in all of these different times.
A misuse of the Bible doesn’t reflect on its creator. It reflects on its interpreter. And so that helps us to do that. And that’s what I really try to do in the last chapter of the book: set aside all those different things like that so we can say, “Look, this is not actually an issue for the Bible,” and so that we can get to some of the real issues, and you know what? As I get to those real issues, some of them, I don’t have a great answer for and I’ll admit and I think it’s important for us to admit, I don’t have a great answer for some of these, but I still trust the Bible and I trust its creator even when I don’t understand.
And that’s not a foolish, blind, theistic, just, “I’m just going to believe in the absence of evidence.” It’s something very different. It’s saying the evidence as a whole is such that even in the things that are odd and that I don’t understand, I will still trust God and I will still trust his word, because as I look at the whole of it, it has proven to be true, and so I’m going to assume that when I see something that I can’t quite reconcile, can’t quite understand, can’t figure out how could God possibly do that, I will trust that there’s something I’m misunderstanding, that I’m misperceiving, whatever it may be, I will trust that it’s that because of the remainder of the text that has proven over and over to be true in all that it affirms.
JK: That’s so helpful because it helps the college student or high school student not just see the way the Bible was abused and the inconsistencies and hypocrisy in the history of Christianity, but it gives them eyes to see. “The Bible can be faithful today, even though I know Christians who are hypocrites, even though I know inconsistencies within my own church,” perhaps, and gives them a confidence in what Christ has said in spite of maybe even sometimes what they see right around them.
One last question: Why Should I Trust the Bible? is part of a series for Christian Focus Publications called “The Big 10: Critical Questions Answered.” So, tell me a little bit, how does this book fit into the larger series and what other big questions do the other contributors to the series address?
TPJ: This is a great series, because it actually takes the ten top questions that secular college students ask, and it has a book on each one of those ten questions. Completely apart from the fact that I’m writing for this series, I would commend this series to your church. Get this series as it starts coming out. I think there’s three or four books out in the series already. Get this series so that you can actually help deal with these issues because it’s the ten top questions that secular college students ask.
Some of the ones that have already come out have to do with just simply the fact of, Is Christianity even believable at all? And that’s one of the early ones that they released, and the idea of that is, “How can I even believe in a religion?” It’s more this overcoming of the initial secular wall of saying, “How is any religion even believable at all?” So, it’s more of an epistemological set of issues at that point of, “What kind of worldview is this and how do I fit it into the evidence and the world that I see around me?”
There’s one, Is Christianity good for the world? And that is saying that “yes, Christianity has been misused at times and done some horrible things, but actually on the balance, Christianity has actually been really good for the world as a whole”. There’s one coming out on the problem of evil, which is going to be really important when it comes out. So, those are just a handful of those that either are already out or coming out soon in this particular series, but it is intended to deal with the questions and to prepare your people in your church to deal with the questions and to prepare your students in your church to deal with the top questions that secular college students are asking.