Q: My adult nephew recently asked me: “How do I know that the Bible is the Word of God and not simply a collection of human writings? How do I know that the people who decided what belongs in the Bible didn’t simply include what they wanted?” I need a better answer than I have at present.
A: God’s self-revelation comes to us through human beings chosen by God. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, assures us that the biblical books are divinely inspired. God helped believers to recognize that inspiration and so collect these writings into a unique library of books. This process worked essentially the same way for the Old Testament and the New Testament.
For example, Jeremiah was not the only prophet active in Judea in the early sixth century B.C. Many other prophets tailored their message to what the people wanted to hear. Their writings are not part of the Bible, not because there was a conspiracy to keep them out but rather because they simply do not reflect God the way that the Book of Jeremiah does.
There exist Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Mary Magdalene and other names associated with Jesus. Why aren’t they in the New Testament? The Christian community did not recognize its faith in these writings—no matter whose prestigious name was attached to them. Jesus as a child did not make clay pigeons and zap them into life, as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas says he did.
God’s self-revelation comes in human history, not in some other time sequence. People can and need to grow in faith, as members of a community and as individuals. The Bible belongs to the whole faith community before it belongs to any individual member.
Conspiracy theories can be great fun. “They” wanted us to have only this information and thus they withheld certain facts. Witness the commercial success of Dan Brown’s books The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. They may make for engaging fiction reading, but are no more than that.
Until you start assessing evidence, every conspiracy theory is as valid as any other. Why engage in them at all? Conspiracy theories can empower people who otherwise feel relegated to spectator status, deprived of the power that they feel they deserve.
You could ask your nephew, “Why do some parts of Scripture challenge other parts? Why does the Bible contain stories that show biblical heroes such as David and St. Peter in an unfavorable light?” The Bible needs to be read as a whole. There is great variety within the Bible, a variety that conspiracy theorists tend to ignore.
The Old Testament’s Book of Job is a cautionary tale. It rebukes Job’s friends who offer a self-serving theology and, in effect, say, “All suffering is a punishment for sin. After you admit your sin, God will forgive you and then restore what you have lost because we all know that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure with that individual.”
God, however, says to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, “I am angry with you and with your two friends; for you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job” (42:7b). They carry out God’s command to offer sacrifice and Job prays for them (see 42:9).
Likewise, the Book of Jonah warns against remaking God in our image, assuming that God needs to take directions from us about whom to love and whom to hate. Jonah is the Bible’s only prophet to complain that his preaching was too successful! Although deep down he hoped that the Ninevites would not repent, they did—and that made Jonah angry (see 4:1-11).
The New Testament’s Letter of James is concerned that wealthy Christians might look down on poor ones (see 2:1-13) or that some Christians could think that proclaiming their faith could substitute for living it (see 2:14-26).
Some people attempt to whittle God down to a convenient size by saying that God is simply a human projection. Likewise, the Bible can be dismissed by claiming that it is a “merely human” document that resulted from a small number of people seeking to foist on others their distorted thinking about God.
In the Bible, God chose to reveal himself through both joyful and sad events: the Exodus, the exile in Babylon, the birth of Jesus, his death and resurrection, as well as the persecution of his followers.
There are genuine conspiracies—for example, the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. The Bible, however, is not a human conspiracy. Rather, it is the result of God’s self-revelation over many centuries, made to a community of believers but intended for all God’s people.
The whole Bible is inspired by God—not simply the parts we may quote to other people to justify our actions. Ultimately, God is the Bible’s author. As the world’s bishops wrote last October, “Divine inspiration did not erase the historical identities and personalities of [the Bible’s] human authors” (Message to the People of God of the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, #5).
The Bible must be studied by Jews and Christians for what it reveals about God. If, as your nephew suggests, it is simply the result of a human conspiracy, then studying it becomes a hobby, something optional (“If that sort of thing appeals to you”). God, our faith tells us, wants to share divine life with us—in part through Scripture.