This week’s question may seem odd, especially after writing a dozen previous articles on the Biblical Canon, and emphasizing the importance of the written Word of God (Why Create a Written Canon? Part 2). I’ll start my answer with this statement: People don’t need a Bible to become Christian.
Becoming a Christian
The earliest books of the New Testament (written by the Apostle Paul) were written 10-20 years after the resurrection of Jesus. But Acts 2:1-41 (ESV) states many people became Christian soon after the resurrection1. So how did people become Christians during those first 10-20 years after the Resurrection? Some people would have known Jesus before the crucifixion, while others saw him after the crucifixion, but these groups are like a small percentage of the people who became Christian. The obvious answer is that the Christians talked about their experiences with non-Christians.
18And Jesus came and said to them [disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
Talk to most Christians, and you’ll likely find they became Christian because someone talked to them about Jesus. Talking sparked an interest and eventually the Holy Spirit convicted them of their need for salvation. For some people, a Bible was never opened during the whole process, while other people may have studied the Bible in depth before believing. I suspect it’s uncommon to find a Christian who never had interactions with Christians and believed in Christ simply by reading the Bible (and the Holy Spirit’s work).
Am I advocating Christians get rid of their Bibles? Absolutely not! People generally become Christian through the witness of Christians, but studying the Bible is often how people grow in their faith. Being a Christian is more than spending an hour or two a few times a month in a building that says “Church” on the outside. Being a Christian means learning about God and living in a way which is consistent with his nature. For most people, that means reading his Word.
The Bible is the written Word of God, and we have strong reasons to believe it hasn’t been corrupted over the past few thousand years. Information can be accurately passed on orally for many generations (Could the Gospel Message have been Accurately Transmitted Orally?), but that requires a commitment from each person in the chain to carefully pass on what was received without change. Many people over the millennia have tried to subtly, or blatantly, change the message of Christ’s gift of salvation to us. When a message is spread orally, it can easily get corrupted if people aren’t careful (Were the Gospels Transmitted like the “Telephone” Game?).
Changing the message is much harder to do with written text. Several of the books the Apostles wrote were likely copied and sent to other churches. In some cases, there would have been many copies of some books spread across the Roman Empire. Trying to make a deliberate change to a book, or to a theological issue, would have been practically impossible. A change would have been noticed and corrected.
Some manuscripts exist which have lasted 1,500 years or more. These are nearly complete Bibles, while fragments of most of the books in the Bible exist which are even older.
- Codex Vaticanus – A.D. 300-325
- Codex Sinaiticus – A.D. 325-350
- Codex Alexandrinus – A.D. 400-450
- Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus – A.D. 425-450
Although these Bibles are damaged and have some pages missing, these are witnesses to what was available to the churches at their times. Mistakes by the scribes who copied Bibles also occur, but modern scholars use the enormous number of ancient manuscripts to help understand what the Biblical authors intended.
Trust, but Verify
President Ronald Reagan made the saying “Trust, but verify.” famous when dealing with the Soviet Union on the issue of nuclear disarmament2. That’s what the Jews in in the city of Berea did when the Apostle Paul spoke to them: Trust, but verify.
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11 NIV)
Being a Christian
Trust, but verify, is what Christians need to do when people tell us what’s in the Bible. We shouldn’t blindly believe what we’re told, but confirm what we’re told using the Bible. Searching the scriptures, hopefully daily, should be an important part of the Christian life.
People don’t need a Bible to become Christian, but most Christians do need a Bible to grow in their understanding of God and salvation.
- So those who received his [Peter] word were baptized, and there were added that day [Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’s resurrection.] about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41 ESV)
- Ironically, Trust, but verify was a Russian proverb before he used it.