Attitude to Scripture

Three approaches to the Bible

There are three broad approaches to the Bible, and the historical truth can only be found by choosing the correct approach. The correct approach may seem to some unpalatable. To them, the old adage applies: 'No pain, no gain' !


The Fundamentalist (or 'Conservative Evangelical') reveres the scriptures, believing that they cannot be wrong. The New Testament should not be criticized. It asserts that Jesus said: "I am the bread of life" (John 6:48), so Jesus must have made that claim. It asserts that many bodies came out of graves and were seen by many people in Jerusalem (Matt 27:52-53), so it must be true.
But the Bible's authors were human, and no human is infallible.

Go to 'Examples of unreliability in the Bible'

This approach keeps religion and science in separate mental compartments. Some are aware of the problem, continually on the defensive against the thrusts of modern scholarship. Others seem blissfully unaware of the fragility of their position, happily immersed in its idealistic images and outlook. Either way, as a route to historical truth this path will remain forever far from its destination.


The moderate critic respects the New Testament documents without idolizing them. This approach is prepared to admit to the presence of errors, both in historical matters, and in ethical and religious opinions. However it still has a high regard for the foundation documents of the Faith. Consequently it invariably assumes that a statement about history, or an attribution of a saying to Jesus, is true unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. In other words, the default is to believe what the New Testament asserts.
This approach will get closer to the truth. Given another two millenia it might get very close as more and more assertions are designated unhistorical. But it is not the best approach because it fails to take fully into account the fact that the New Testament writers, without exception, were evangelists. They were all trying to put over a point of view, and many of them believed that the means justified the end. The initial problems involved factors beyond the authors' control: the relative scientific ignorance of people in the first century; the relative difficulty in communication at a distance. So when an author came to record events and sayings for the first time, he or she had to rely on memory and hearsay. Naturally there were gaps to be filled. There was no tape-recorder or short-hand typist to record a speech, so a little invention was needed. Let's put in the speaker's mouth what we think he would have said. The account needs a story here, so let's compose something appropriate. There's a promise which wasn't fulfilled, so let's 'put the record straight'. Something Jesus said is a bit embarrassing now that we're reaching out to the Gentiles, so let's put a different angle on it.
Given this background, taking a statement to be true by default will attain the historical truth at the pace of a very slow snail.


The sceptical critic looks with suspicion at every assertion in the New Testament. By default every assertion is false unless it can clearly be shown to be true. There is of course a danger that we will end up with a fragmentary picture of Jesus, a jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing. So be it. For this is better by far than ending up with a false picture.