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NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: An Interview with John Walton and Craig Keener

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John Walton

Sometimes a little context is needed to discover the rich meaning behind the stories of Scripture. Reading the Bible could be compared to traveling in a foreign country. Having a faithful guide who reveals the surrounding culture offers a more complete understanding. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides expert insight into the customs, culture, and literature of Bible times to help readers see behind-the-scenes of the ancient world and discover new dimensions to even the most familiar Bible passages.

Craig Keener

[See Zondervan to Release NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible]

Bible Gateway interviewed John Walton and Craig Keener, editors of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan, August 2016).

Even though people buy the Bible, research studies say they tend not to read it. Is that because of its ancient cultural perspective?

Craig Keener: The ancient cultural perspective is not the whole problem—we’re a less text-oriented culture now—but it’s a major problem. The Bible seems a foreign book to many readers because of the great cultural gaps between then and now. Even if we translate it into modern language, we still need to explain some of the culture and customs that throw modern readers off.

Buy your copy of NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

How can we know with certainty what the Bible’s ancient culture was like?

John Walton: We have over a million cuneiform texts, as well as uncounted reliefs, tomb paintings, and papyri that reveal the ancient world to us. They give us windows to that world. When the spaceship Voyager was launched, people put a lot of thinking into providing digital material that would convey the essence of life on earth to any intelligent species who encountered the spacecraft. These were intended to provide windows that would allow others to know what our culture and thinking were like. The ancient texts do the same for us, even though what we find is more based on chance rather than intentional preservation.

How do you respond to critics who say it’s wrong to include in the Bible such extra-biblical content as the explanation of Egyptian idol worship, Sumerian legal texts, Akkadian epic stories, Mesopotamian genealogies, Canaanite deities, and Roman antiquities?

John Walton: The Bible itself talks about some of these things and we need to know how to enter the conversation. We can understand what the Bible is saying best when we recognize its cultural context, and all of those things are part of the cultural context. This is not imposing anything on the Bible any more than going to the Hebrew or Greek imposes something on the text. If we don’t read in light of the ancient world, we’re likely to impose our modern thinking on the text just like a translation imposes English on a text. Reading instinctively can be unreliable.

Craig Keener: Biblical writers supplied such information when they knew their audiences were unfamiliar with it. Thus Mark explains a Jewish custom for his audience in Mark 7:3-4 that Matthew does not need to explain for his audience. The plagues were judgments against the gods of Egypt (Exod 12:12; Num 33:4), so we get more of a feel for what the Israelites felt if we know something about those gods.

How was Israelite culture shaped by its surrounding culture?

John Walton: We shouldn’t think of Israel being shaped by surrounding cultures; Israel is fully embedded in the ancient world, even though every once in a while God gave them information that distinguished them from those around them. They think like people from the ancient world in the same way that Americans intrinsically value human rights, individualism, freedom, empiricism, and capitalism. For Israelites, as for the rest of the ancient world, there were certain “givens”: community identity, the continual and pervasive activity of the gods, the reality of magic and the spirit world, etc. Israel did not have to learn these things—it’s simply what was natural for them.

How do you explain the intersection of God’s inspiration and human culture in the writing of the Bible?

Craig Keener: If God speaks in a cosmic wind, we won’t understand him. God graciously communicates to us in the languages we understand, concretely addressing real human circumstances. God spoke in the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; he spoke also about Canaanites, Philistines, and Romans. God was addressing relevant issues, and understanding the cultures addressed helps us understand how to reapply that message in relevant ways today.

What was the process in creating the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible?

Craig Keener: Our insights build on decades of research; indeed, I already had 100,000 index cards of data before I transitioned to electronic files about 20 years ago. I tended to exclude material that was less well-attested, less certain to be early, and less directly relevant to the text. Now I type my new data directly into electronic files, but the research and writing together have usually consumed about 40-60 hours a week for decades. I worked through most of the Loeb Classical Library (Greek and Roman literature), ancient Jewish literature, a number of archaeological reports, and so forth.

Give an example of a Bible passage that may be misinterpreted and misapplied by modern readers who aren’t taking its original context into perspective.

John Walton: One of the best Old Testament examples is the Tower of Babel, where we learn that people are not building it to go up to heaven, but are building it for God to come down to re-establish his presence as it was in Eden.

Craig Keener: Headcoverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) communicated sexual modesty, and holy kisses (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14) a sort of familial greeting. Not knowing that, we might think to make them mandatory today. Many 19th-century readers tried to use Paul to support slavery, despite the cultural and literary differences (Eph 6:5-9). Christians today have different views of gender, but almost no churches today require of women absolute silence (e.g., no singing in church), so it helps all of us to understand what Paul was addressing in 1 Cor 14:34-35. The symbols used in Revelation had definite ancient meanings, so turning them into helicopters or space aliens misses their point (however much it may continue their “scare” value!).

How does cultural understanding affect doctrinal positions? (For example, head covering, holy kisses, and church leadership?)

Craig Keener: In the particular examples you give, it might show that some of these are not doctrinal positions, but cultural ways of expressing something. We should still practice modesty today, but not all cultures require one do this by head coverings (in antiquity, normally covering all the hair). We should still greet our brothers and sisters as members of our family in Christ, but this need not be in the form of kisses (in antiquity, normally a light kiss on the lips). Early Christians borrowed particular leadership titles and models from the culture yet rejected others; that may show us more about the principles of Christian leadership than about particulars that must be followed in all churches (certain offices seem to have developed over time even in the New Testament).

John Walton: Cultural understanding helps us to recognize elements that are simply reflections of the culture surrounding the biblical authors. That does not automatically mean that those elements are no longer relevant, but it gives us more information on which to make decisions.

Between the abundant charts, maps, photographs, diagrams, articles, and book introductions, how should a person begin to read the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible to get the most out of it?

Craig Keener: It depends on what the reader needs. Some readers will want to study new material in detail, soaking in each note. Others will want to just read Bible passages and sections straight through, looking at the notes only when they wonder what’s going on. Because I wrote most of the New Testament notes, I plan to read the OT notes so I can better understand features that I don’t know yet. The life, of course, is in the Bible itself. The notes are meant to serve studying the Bible by helping readers understand it better.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Craig Keener: All the Bible is for all time, but not everything in the Bible is for all circumstances. Understanding the kinds of circumstances addressed—for example, the sort of culture where covering one’s hair reflects sexual modesty—helps us understand the transcultural principles the Bible conveys and how better to apply them.


Bio: Dr. John H. Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, where he’s been a professor since 2001. Dr. Walton came to Wheaton after a 20-year career as a professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He’s written extensively on the backgrounds of the Old Testament and has travelled the world lecturing about this field of study.

His publications include The Lost World of Adam and Eve (IVP, 2015); The Lost World of Scripture (IVP, 2013) with Brent Sandy; Job: NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2012); Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns, 2011); Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Old Testament (General Editor, Zondervan, 2009); The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP, 2009); Jonah: Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan: 2008); Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker, 2006); and Old Testament Today (Zondervan, 2004).

Dr. Craig S. Keener is the F.M. and Ada Thompson professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Seminary, Wilmore, KY. Before coming to Asbury in July 2011, Dr. Keener was professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University, where he taught for 15 years; before that time he was professor at Hood Theological Seminary. Craig is a sought-after speaker, writer, and lecturer on the subject of New Testament cultural backgrounds.

Craig has authored 20 books, four of which have won Christianity Today Book Awards. His IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP, 1993), now in its 2nd revised edition (2014), has sold more than half a million copies (including editions in several languages, including more than 50,000 copies in Korean). His recent books include Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker Academic, 2012–2015); Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011); The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009); The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2009); Romans: New Covenant Commentary Series (Cascade, 2009); 1 & 2 Corinthians (Cambridge, 2005); The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Hendrickson/Baker Academic, 2003).

Loving Our Muslim Neighbors During Ramadan

A tile depicting the Great MosqueAround the world, millions of Muslims are midway through Ramadan—a period during which faithful Muslims fast, pray, and reflect on their moral responsibilities as followers of Islam.

Christians, of course, do not observe Ramadan. Why should Christians spend time thinking about a Muslim holy season?

First, it’s neighborly to be aware of any event that commands the attention of so many people (23% of the world’s population, not far behind Christianity’s 31%). But more to the point, Christians are called to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire world, and that means loving and seeking to understand our Muslim neighbors. (Consider how the apostle Paul’s presentation of the gospel in Athens reflected his understanding of his audience’s spiritual beliefs and questions.)

Second, the persistent challenge of terrorism (and specifically, recent terrorist attacks in Orlando, Paris, and elsewhere) has put Muslims in the spotlight, as everyone from politicians to pundits to pastors to everyday citizens attempts to understand the relationship between Islam and terrorist groups that cite Islam as their motivation. Not all of the people talking about Islam in the public sphere have a deep understanding of it, and as a result many of those public discussions and statements create more heat than light! Ramadan presents a good opportunity for us to step back from the frenzy of public debate and learn what our Muslim neighbors believe, and how their beliefs shape their lives and actions.

In that spirit, here are some online articles and other resources that will help you better understand Islam:

Ramadan is an excellent opportunity for Christians to learn more about their Muslim neighbors, and consider how they can show Christlike love to followers of a religion whose relationship with Christianity has long been married by violence and mutual misunderstanding.

Image: a tile depicting the Kaaba, a building in the Great Mosque in Mecca.

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Knowing Scripture: Learn the Basics of Bible Understanding with Dr. R.C. Sproul

Click here to watch Dr. Sproul’s Knowing Scripture video lecture series.

Bible Translation Reading Levels

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Buy your copy of Mounce Interlinear in the Bible Gateway Store

With so many English Bible translations available, it can be difficult to pinpoint which Bible might be the best for your—or your child’s—reading and comprehension level.

[For more information, see About Translations in the Bible Gateway Store]

Not everyone agrees about the minimum grade level of every translation or the formulas used to calculate them. But we offer as general guidelines the following range of USA school grade levels (taken from information provided by the publishers of the various translations wherever possible) and age levels:

Browse King James Version Bibles in the Bible Gateway Store

  • Mounce — 12+ (ages 17+)
  • KJV — 12+ (ages 17+)
  • RSV — 12+ (ages 17+)
  • Geneva — 12+ (ages 17+)
  • WEB — 12+ (ages 17+)
  • NRSV — 11+ (ages 16+)
  • NASB — 11+ (ages 16+)
  • Amplified — 11+ (ages 16+)
  • MEV — 11+ (ages 16+)
  • LEB — 11+ (ages 16+)Browse New American Standard Bibles in the Bible Gateway Store
  • ESV — 10+ (ages 15+)
  • J.B. Phillips NT — 10+ (ages 15+)
  • NABRE — 9+ (ages 14+)
  • NIV — 7+ (ages 12+)
  • CEB — 7+ (ages 12+)
  • NET — 7+ (ages 12+)
  • GNT — 7+ (ages 12+)
  • ISV — 7+ (ages 12+)
  • NKJV — 7+ (ages 12+)Browse New International Version Bibles in the Bible Gateway Store
  • HCSB — 7+ (ages 12+)
  • The Voice — 6+ (ages 11+)
  • NLT — 6+ (ages 11+)
  • CEV — 5+ (ages 10+)
  • GW — 5+ (ages 10+)
  • The Message — 4+ (ages 9+)
  • Living — 4+ (ages 9+)
  • ERV — 4+ (ages 9+)
  • NCV — 3+ (ages 7+)Browse New Living Translation Bibles in the Bible Gateway Store
  • ICB — 3+ (ages 7+)
  • NIrV — 3+ (ages 7+)

This list does not take into account mitigating factors such as reading English as a second language. If you’re new to English, you may want to check out these Bibles in the Bible Gateway Store:

To deepen your understanding of the Bible, become a member of Bible Gateway Plus, with which you’ll have unlimited 24/7 instant digital access from any Web-friendly computer or device to a valuable library of more than 40 bestselling and critically-acclaimed Bible references—and enjoy a banner-advertising free environment—alongside Bible Gateway’s Scripture passages you select to read. Click to learn more.

Core Christianity: An Interview with Michael Horton

Michael HortonFor many people, words like Christian doctrine and theology cause their eyes to glaze over, or they find them difficult to understand and struggle to see how they’re relevant to daily life. But theology is far from boring; it’s the study of God and should lead to awe and wonder as we better understand who God is and what he’s done for us.

Bible Gateway interviewed Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) about his book, Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story (Zondervan, 2016) (website; @CorChristianity).

What’s your reaction to Scot McKnight’s comparison of your book to John Stott’s Basic Christianity?Buy your copy of Core Christianity in the Bible Gateway Store

Michael Horton: Scot is a very gracious brother! While my book isn’t in the same class, it is in the same genre with the same audience that John Stott had in mind.

The word ‘Christianity’ is broadly defined by people. What’s your definition of its essence? And does that essence transcend East and West understandings?

Michael Horton: Absolutely. I take “Christianity” to be defined in the broadest sense by the Nicene Creed. I don’t wade into the Filioque controversy (i.e., the West’s addition “…and from the Son” for the Spirit’s procession from the Father). This book is really basic and all along I kept picturing friends from other Christian traditions, asking myself, “Would they say this is ‘core Christianity’?” I hope it accomplished that goal.

Explain how you’ve brought the idea of ‘story’ into the discussion of Christian doctrine.

Michael Horton: Sometimes people say doctrine is boring because it’s isolated from the unfolding biblical drama that gives rise to it and also isolated from doxology (praise) and discipleship. Actually, it’s the doctrine that shows the story’s relevance for us: It’s not only that Jesus lived and died and rose again. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In Scripture, we constantly see this integral connection between what happened, why it happened, and why it matters.

What’s the importance of the stories we tell about our lives?

Michael Horton: Everyone is living out of a story, even if they might not be able to articulate it. Many of us are writing our own story, inventing our own character, using other people—and God—as supporting actors in our life movie. But God has given us the greatest story ever told and the Holy Spirit is the casting director, sweeping us into the drama that centers on being “in Christ” rather than “in Adam.”

In today’s culture of relativism, how is it possible to persuade a person that there are absolutes (or doctrines, to use another word)?

Michael Horton: I start with the resurrection of Christ. The Bible makes a lot of truth-claims, but if this one isn’t true, none of the rest matters and we can all go back to writing our autobiography about “the nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” (That’s a very loose paraphrase of Paul’s alternative to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.) So Core Christianity begins there. There’s nothing more “core” than that, right?

What are the four Ds you write about and how do they influence a person’s worldview?

Michael Horton: Drama: the grand narrative from Genesis to Revelation centering on the Triune God and his redemption of a people in Jesus Christ.

Doctrine: the great truths arising from the drama. For example, a narrative text tells us how God delivered his people in the exodus and then from these throbbing verbs and adverbs it gives us stable nouns: God is loving, compassionate, sovereign, omniscient, faithful, just, holy, and so forth.

Doxology: if the doctrine tells us how God’s mighty acts affect us, the goal is to provoke us to respond in repentance and faith, with the fruit of faith: love and thanksgiving. It’s at this stage that we step into the story and become a character in God’s unfolding drama together with the great cloud of witnesses in all times and places.

Discipleship: “In view of God’s mercies, present your body as a living sacrifice,” Paul says in Romans 12, after teaching the drama and the doctrine, interjected with exclamations of praise. In Romans 1, Paul says that after the fall humanity was “no longer thankful.” The gospel of free grace in Christ restores our gratitude, which fuels our lives. Faith bears the fruit of love and good works. As we learn our role, we join a local community theater—church—where there are “live” performances of this amazing story. And then we fan out into the world as part of the new creation, loving and serving others in our witness and callings.

You write that God still speaks to us today. How so?

Michael Horton: We have the enormous privilege to speak to our Father through prayer, because of the mediation of Christ and the work of the Spirit in our hearts. God speaks to us through Scripture, as it’s read but especially as it’s proclaimed in the assembly where the Triune God gathers a people for his name. Through the lips of another sinner he’s sent to us, the Father speaks, hears, absolves, directs, comforts, corrects, and unites us to his Son and to each other by his Spirit. As Paul says in Romans 10, we don’t have to try to climb up to heaven to pull Christ down or descend into the abyss as if to make him alive in our midst, but he is as near as the word of the gospel that’s preached—and prayed, read, sung, and confessed.

How do you respond to people who claim the Bible is a book of contradictions and can’t be trusted?

Michael Horton: I find it helpful to ask people, “What do you mean? Could you be specific?” Usually, they’ve heard these claims but can’t recall any examples. It’s pretty vague.

But you meet some who’ve wrestled with particular examples. In those cases I try to get the person to take a step back and consider the case for Christ, centering on his resurrection. From there, you have the testimony of the risen Christ to the Old Testament (he identifies Scripture as God’s word) and to the New Testament (he commissions his apostles and tells them that the Spirit will cause them to remember and to accurately communicate all that has transpired and what it means).

Next, it helps to point out that apparent discrepancies, for example, in the Gospels, are exactly what you have in legitimate testimony to historical events. Each sees the scene from a particular vantage point and at different times during the events in question. These differences in testimony aren’t contradictions, but the sign that you’re actually dealing with eye-witnesses of real events. You also have to ask: What’s the level of worry here? Are we talking about contradictions over whether Jesus rose from the dead or other matters of salvation?

Finally, we should point out that accuracy doesn’t equal exactitude in reporting. For example, Jesus wasn’t making a botanical point about the mustard seed being the smallest; he was drawing on the familiar experience of his hearers for an analogy of how the kingdom spreads into a great worldwide tree from a tiny seed.

Only now, after putting the remaining questions in their place, can we tackle specific alleged contradictions one-by-one. They turn out to be a pretty small set. Scientists are always discovering anomalies that seem to contradict their theories, but they don’t easily give up a theory that has such enormous explanatory power over so much data. Their first hunch is that they don’t have all the answers and just because they haven’t figured it out doesn’t mean the theory is wrong. Don’t give up the gospel because you don’t know how to reconcile some census numbers or can’t make sense of the sun standing still in Joshua.

What does a person look like who believes in the essence of Christianity?

Michael Horton: A new creature in Christ who nevertheless needs to be forgiven every day. Yes, there are hypocrites. In fact, all Christians are hypocrites to some degree. We don’t always live in the light of the character we’ve been given in God’s story. But hypocrisy assumes some standard: “the glory of God” from which we fall short each day. Even to see us on our knees in confession of sin and grateful praise is astonishing to a culture that has pushed God out of its daily consciousness.

The Spirit creates faith through the gospel and that faith bears the fruit of love, which gives birth to good works. The gospel not only changes our status before God; it changes our loves, longings, and lives before our neighbors. So we need to know what we believe and why believe it—to be transformed by the renewing of our mind by the Word. We have to be intentional about it. There are no accidental Christians.

Why should people read Core Christianity?

Michael Horton: I hope people read it to investigate the basic claims of Christianity: how it all fits together and why it matters. I’ve already heard stories of people coming to know Christ who had little previous contact with the gospel and of others who were raised in the church but didn’t know much about the basics or why it’s true.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Michael Horton: It’s a go-to resource, no doubt about it. I’m a big fan and hope that both continue to expand the reach of God’s Word around the world.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Michael Horton: Thanks for the opportunity to let folks know about Core Christianity and introducing it to a wider circle.


Bio: Michael Horton is the author of over 20 books—such as Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, and The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way—and host of White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio program. He is professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California and the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. A popular blogger and sought-after lecturer, he resides in Escondido, California with his wife and children.

Bible News Roundup – Week of June 19, 2016

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Scripture as Spam: What 5 Experts Think About Twitter Bible Bots
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Bible Illiteracy in the Church Today
Western Seminary
Bible Gateway Blog posts about Bible Literacy
Scripture Engagement section on Bible Gateway

President of Ukraine Congratulates Ukrainian Bible Society on Its 25th Anniversary
Ukrinform
Read the Bible in Ukrainian on Bible Gateway
Bible Translation Organizations

Iowa Public Bible Reading Marathon Expanding
Muscatine Journal

4 Days of Public Bible Reading Planned for Iowa County Court House Courtyard
Winterset Madisonian

Massive Full-Scale Version of Noah’s Ark Comes to Life in Kentucky
ABC News Nightline
Read the story of Noah’s ark from Genesis 6-9 on Bible Gateway

US Air Force to Launch Investigation Into Veteran’s Removal from Ceremony for Speech Invoking God
Stars and Stripes

Video: Genocide in the Old Testament
Dallas Theological Seminary
Blog post—Did God Really Command Genocide?: An Interview with Drs. Paul Copan & Matthew Flannagan

New Bible Verse Billboard in Idaho to Replace Old One
Idaho Statesman

11 Things to Know About the King James Bible
Houston Chronicle
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Defending the Faith: School Program Aims to Prove Bible Stories Through Evidence, Technology
The Orange County Register

Data Transmission Breakthrough Means More Bible App Access
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Popular Digital-Bible Translation (ISV) Set for Big Change
WND News
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James Bay Canada Woman Completes Modernization of New Testament Translation
Times Colonist
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Police Detain Three Chinese Christians for Possession of Bible
The Orange County Register
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Oldest Korean Manuscript of Bible Found
The Korea Times
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Orthodox Hold Humbled Yet Historic Council in Crete
CT

5 Key Findings About Global Restrictions on Religion
FactTank
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How We Got the Bible: An Interview with Timothy Paul Jones

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Timothy Paul JonesWho wrote the books in the Bible and how did they end up together? How reliable is the Bible? What languages were used to write the books of the Bible? Where did the word “Bible” come from?

Bible Gateway interviewed Timothy Paul Jones (@DrTimothyPJones) about his colorful, 2016 Christian Book Award-winning book, How We Got the Bible (Rose Publishing, 2015).

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See the 2016 Christian Book Award Winners in the Bible Gateway Store.

Congratulations on winning the 2016 Christian Book Award in the Bible Reference category!

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: Thank you! The designers and editors at Rose Publishing did such amazing work, turning this content into such a colorful and user-friendly resource. I’m so thankful for the editors and graphic designers who put so many hours into this project.

Buy your copy of How We Got the Bible Made Easy—DVD Curriculum in the Bible Gateway Store

In keeping with the title, how did we get the Bible?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: God inspired not merely the authors but the very words of the biblical text. These words were recognized by God’s people as authoritative and preserved for centuries in copies made by hand. These copies were used to publish Old and New Testaments in the original languages, and these texts are being translated around the globe today into thousands of different languages.

One simple way to summarize how the Bible came to us is to say that the Bible is inerrant in its inspiration, sufficient in its preservation, and dependent on the Spirit’s illumination and sound interpretation for its application.

What languages were used to write the books of the Bible?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The New Testament was written in the koine—or “common”—dialect of Greek. The Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew, although a few texts in Ezra, Jeremiah, and Daniel were written in Aramaic. Early on, the Israelites would have written in an older form of Hebrew that we now call “paleo-Hebrew.” Sometime after the sixth century BC, Jewish scribes began using a “square-script” alphabet that’s familiar to us today.

You begin the book by saying we need to explore not only what the Bible is made of but also what the Bible is. Briefly explain what you mean.

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The Bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible, and sufficient. To say that the text is inspired means it is “God-breathed.” Even though the text was penned by dozens of human authors in their own styles and ways, God superintended the very words of the text. Since the Bible comes from a God who never lies, the Bible never lies. The words “inerrant” and “infallible” highlight that simple truth.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should do everything that the Bible describes! In many cases, the inerrancy of Scripture calls us to recognize that the Bible rightly records what happened even when what happened wasn’t right.

The Bible is “sufficient” in two senses: the text has been copied with sufficient accuracy to preserve God’s truth and the words of Scripture provide sufficient information for us to follow Jesus faithfully.

Taken together, what all of this means is that the Bible is a trustworthy and Spirit-inspired testimony of the revelation of God’s glory in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The chart of contrasts between the Old Testament and New Testament from the book How We Got the Bible by Timothy Paul Jones

Where did the word “Bible” come from?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The English word “Bible” comes from the Latin word biblia (“books”), which comes from the Greek word, Byblos. The Greek Byblos originally described papyrus—an ancient writing material made from reeds that grow along the Nile River in Egypt.

Why are there large amounts of repetition in the Bible?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: That’s one of the places where we see clearly that God didn’t dictate the Bible in a way that disregarded human language or culture; God worked with human beings within their contexts to inspire his Word. Some repetitions occur because the same story has come to us from different sources that tell the same truth in different ways—the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example. The books of Chronicles seem to be pulled together at a time after Judah’s return from exile when hope for a Messiah has grown stronger, and you can see this distinct emphasis when you compare the books of Chronicles with Samuel and Kings. Other times, you see repetition because the author recounted an event broadly then zoomed in to focus on one particular aspect of the event. In the first couple of chapters of Genesis, for example, the author first gave the big picture of God’s work of creation, then he retold the creation of man and woman in a detailed and focused way to emphasize humanity as the crown jewel of God’s creation.

What is the Apocrypha and why is it not included in Protestant Bibles?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: When a Christian leader named Jerome developed a new Latin translation of the Old Testament in the fourth century AD, he used Hebrew and Aramaic texts as his primary source, but he also translated some additional texts that could be found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. These additional texts were written in the four centuries or so before the time of Jesus. Jerome referred to these additional texts as “Apocrypha”—meaning “obscure” or “hidden things”—and he made it clear that these books should never shape any “doctrines of the church.”

Some later theologians came to a different conclusion about these books and treated them as authoritative Scripture; the Roman Catholic church and, in a slightly different way, the Orthodox church still regard these writings as an authoritative part of the Old Testament.

Many Christians, however, have concluded that the apocryphal writings were not God-breathed for three simple reasons: (1) The authors of the New Testament never quoted the Apocrypha as Scripture. (2) The Jewish people never recognized the Apocrypha as Scripture. (3) The text Jesus received as the revelation of his Father’s work with Israel did not include the Apocrypha. We know this because Jesus described his Bible as a three-part canon of “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44); this tripartite division described the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament, not the Greek version that included the Apocrypha.

What is the definition of canon?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The meaning of the word canon as we know it today can be traced back to how the Greeks used a certain reed, known as a kanon. The Greeks cut these reeds into specific lengths and used them as measuring sticks. As a result, a kanon became a tool that set standards and measured limits, and the word kanon came to imply an infallible standard. In Galatians 6:16, Paul used this term to signify the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice as God’s standard—God’s kanon—for life and faith. By the fourth century AD, the meaning of the word “canon” had expanded to describe writings that were recognized as the infallible standard for God’s people.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there was no canon of Scripture prior to the fourth century! Before that time, Christians used other phrases to describe the idea of a list of authoritative books. For example, some Christians referred to authoritative texts as those that were “read publicly in the church” to distinguish them from writings that were read privately for the purpose of personal inspiration and devotion.

How were the decisions made to include certain books in the canon and exclude others from it, such as the “lost Gospels”?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: When it comes to the New Testament and the supposed “lost Gospels,” the basic criterion for inclusion or exclusion was whether or not the document could be traced back to an apostolic eyewitness of the risen Lord Jesus or to close associates of these eyewitnesses.

The so-called “lost Gospels” were never received as authoritative because they did not include reliable, eyewitness testimony about Jesus; they couldn’t be reliably linked to anyone who had walked and talked with Jesus.

When early Christians were confronted with texts that claimed to come from eyewitnesses, they compared these texts with others that they knew came from eyewitnesses or from close associates of eyewitnesses. For example, in the late second century AD, a pastor named Serapion ran across a text that claimed to be a Gospel from Peter. When he compared it to texts that he knew came from reliable witnesses, he realized that this supposed “Gospel of Peter” had been falsely ascribed to Peter, and he wrote these words, “We accept the writings of Peter and the other apostles just as we would accept Christ, but, as for those with a name falsely ascribed, we deliberately dismiss them, knowing that no such things have been handed down to us.”

Why is the canon of the Bible considered closed and no more books have been added over the centuries?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: Once God’s promises were fulfilled in Jesus and the eyewitnesses of this fulfillment died, no further texts could be considered authoritative for God’s people.

We see this principle at work in the second half of the second century AD when some Christians were lobbying to include a text called “The Shepherd” among the authoritative texts that were read as part of the churches’ worship. When this issue came up, here’s the reason that was given for rejecting this text as authoritative writing: “‘The Shepherd’ was written recently, in our own time in the city of Rome…. It ought to be read, but it shouldn’t be read publicly in the church to the people. It cannot be placed among the prophets, for their number is complete, nor among the writings of the apostles, even until the end of time.”

Why do modern Bible translators have an advantage over their centuries-old counterparts when it comes to earliest manuscripts?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The simplest answer to this question is that we now have access to far more manuscripts. When Erasmus collated his edition of the Greek New Testament, for example, he only had access to seven medieval Greek manuscripts. However, by the end of the 20th century, scholars had access to well over 5,000 Greek manuscripts in whole or in part, with several portions dating to the 2nd century AD.

Where did Bible chapters and verses come from?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The use of numbers to locate verses was made possible through the work of two men whose names you’ve probably never heard.

The first is the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton who, in the early 13th century, added chapter numbers to the Latin Vulgate.

The second individual is Robertus Stephanus, who divided the chapters into verses in his Greek New Testament. He did this while on a trip from Paris to Lyon and back in 1551. Later, people joked that, every time his horse stepped in a rut, Stephanus marked a new verse. In truth, he probably divided the verses at stops all along the way, not while riding his horse!

How do you respond to those who say the Bible is inconsistent and unreliable?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: The testimonies in the New Testament are traceable to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord Jesus, and there’s robust evidence for the reliability of their claims. Jesus believed the Old Testament, and I accept the truth of his testimony on the basis of his resurrection from the dead.

What’s your favorite passage of the Bible and why?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: God has used Jeremiah 29 powerfully in my life, and that chapter remains one of my favorites still today. It’s a call to seek the good of the place where we are, even if it’s a painful and difficult place.

Early in my ministry, I served almost six years in a tiny church that was extremely difficult for my wife and me; God used this text to call me to love the people and the place where I was, instead of constantly longing for something different.

Your book is packed with colorful charts and illustrations. Who did you envision reading your book when you were writing it?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: My passion has always been to make Christian history and Bible apologetics accessible to every believer in Jesus Christ, not just people with degrees in Bible or theology. This book and video series are for anyone who wonders how we got the Bible and whether the Bible is reliable, from teenagers to senior citizens and anyone in between.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones: Bible Gateway is my go-to app and website for Bible study. My favorite parts of Bible Gateway are the SBL Greek New Testament and the commentaries and Bible study resources from IVP.


Bio: Timothy Paul Jones serves as the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Ministry and as associate vice president at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Jones has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books in the fields of family ministry and apologetics, including The God Who Goes before You: A Biblical and Theological Vision for Leadership, Praying Like the Jew, Jesus: Recovering the Ancient Roots of New Testament Prayer, and Practical Family Ministry: A Collection of Ideas for Your Church.

The son of a rural pastor, Dr. Jones earned his bachelor of arts degree in biblical studies at Manhattan Christian College. He also holds the Master of Divinity degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s taught biblical languages at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and at Oklahoma Baptist University, as well as lecturing on the reliability of the New Testament Gospels at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) at forums sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

How to Recognize False Teaching

howtostudythebible

This lesson is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


When I was young in the faith, I had a deep hunger to find the truth of God because I had tasted it, it was deeply satisfying, and I sensed that my soul was just waiting to be revived from some kind of hibernation. So I sought out different Christian teachers and preachers, read some best-selling books, and sampled Christian radio teaching. But I was unsettled by the feeling I sometimes had that the Bible teaching I was hearing seemed only loosely linked with the biblical text, and it was peculiar, out of sync, and did not have the “ring of truth” I experienced when reading Scripture itself.

Some years later, I came to the conclusion that the “smell test” needs to be taken seriously. If we are exposed to teaching that just doesn’t “smell” right, then we ought to proceed carefully. Maybe the teaching is sound and we just need to get in sync with it, or it may be that our “noses” are all right and we’re hearing that most dangerous thing—false teaching.

The Bible itself speaks of “false teaching.” There is a difference between truth and falsehood, and when it comes to Bible interpretation, there is a lot of teaching that is garbage—and it smells that way.

So how can we know if someone is giving false teaching from the Bible?

First, we need to watch out for opportunists. Teachers who gain illicitly from their teaching need to be avoided. It is amazing, really, how many masses of people will follow someone who is manipulative, grossly greedy, and dishonest. They promise prosperity if others make them prosperous, and they laugh all the way to the bank. The short epistle of Jude offers a stark analysis of this kind of false teaching:

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. (Jude 12-13, 16)

This is a stunning description of the destructive effects of “shepherds who feed only themselves.” The passage indicates that we must watch out for the selfishness, fruitlessness, chaos, and arrogance of certain people. They gain influence via their sheer conceit. Ironically, we give them credence on the basis of their pride, the character flaw that most disqualifies them. When we realize we have been sucked in by this kind of false teacher, we need to do some soul-searching to figure out why.

Another kind of false teaching is ill-founded speculation. Some people make a career out of spouting details of topics like spiritual life or prophesy or cosmology, which go way beyond what Scripture actually teaches. There are no controls on such speculation. Sometimes the motive is manipulation—esoteric knowledge can be a power tactic. The last sentence of 1 Timothy is this plea:

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. (1 Tim. 6:20-21 ESV)

Second Timothy contains a similar warning:

Charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Tim. 2:14-17 ESV)

A third kind of false teaching is legalism. Jesus confronted this distortion of the truth of God when he exposed the corrupt side of sectarianism: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). First Timothy 4:3 warns about teachers who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”

These and other forms of false teaching all have causes, and sometimes we will avoid spiritual collisions if we see them ahead of time. False teaching can come from naiveté, arrogance, or selfish gain. The problem we face today is that it isn’t hard to grab a microphone, create a webpage, or even self-publish a book. We must make careful choices about whom we listen to, and have the strength to turn away when a suspicious teacher is tickling our ears and offering false comfort.


Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.

Sacred Marriage: An Interview with Gary Thomas

Gary ThomasWhat if God’s primary intent for your marriage isn’t to make you happy, but holy? How should you consider your marriage to be more than a sacred covenant with another person? How is it that marriage is a spiritual discipline designed to help you know God better, trust him more fully, and love him more deeply?

Bible Gateway interviewed Gary Thomas (@garyLthomas) about his bestselling book, Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2015), winner of the K-Love 2016 Book Impact Fan Award.

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How do most people define a happy marriage? Why do you believe that’s a false promise?

Gary Thomas: The word happy has been re-defined over the past two millennia from a sense of well-being that proceeds out of character and wisdom, to today’s notion of happiness meaning “emotionally pleasant and continuous romantic feelings, combined with the absence of conflict.”

Pleasant feelings are wonderful and a gift from God, but what if their constant presence is unrealistic, and their occasional absence makes normally imperfect couples feel inferior? We know that infatuated feelings have a neurological shelf life of about 12 to 18 months. In fact, neurologists warn that when we’re infatuated we “idealize” each other—we relate to someone who doesn’t actually exist. Since intimacy is being fully known and accepted, we have to die to infatuation (which keeps us from being fully known) so that true intimacy can be birthed.

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We also know that conflict can actually be a good thing; a process through which we draw nearer to each other and grow in our understanding of each other. Conflict—handled in a healthy way—reveals deep-seated feelings, desires, insecurities, and values. Resolving conflict isn’t fun, in the same way that lifting heavy weights isn’t necessarily “fun,” but both make us stronger in very different ways.

I celebrate happiness and thank God for happiness; it’s just that happiness, as our popular society defines it (as opposed to, say ancient philosopher’s definition) can’t be maintained. Happiness defined as a general sense of well-being that arises from being in a right relationship with God and others, can.

What is the romanticism projected by cultural entertainment and how has it impacted the church?

Gary Thomas: Romanticism elevates a certain aspect of relationship at the expense of higher qualities. Romanticism idealizes euphoria, celebrates the myth of “the one” as a human counterpart who fulfills us, and focuses on finding the right person instead of becoming a connected couple.

Romanticism demands that we be appreciated by our beloved, as we are, without question. Jesus (Matthew 5:48), Paul (2 Corinthians 7:1), Peter (2 Peter 1:5-9), James (1:4) and John (1 John 3:2-3) all call us to actively grow—to pursue increasing love, faith, and character (i.e., become something we’re not).

Chasing after the first feelings of romance is like chasing after the first big “high” of an addiction—it’s never the same, and its elusive false promise will ruin our life.

What unique challenges do you think today’s younger generation face in their marriages?

Gary Thomas: Selfishness is a major challenge. Our expectations for our marriage partners are so high that you risk running into the situation my senior pastor humorously calls “two ticks and no dog.” Hollywood has created this false sense of what a marriage and romance should be, rather than a realistic portrayal of what God created it to be. The highest end of personality is to be like Christ who said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”—the death of selfishness! If I want to be more selfless, a “difficult” marriage is something I’ll learn to appreciate and even cherish. If I want to pamper my inherent selfishness, a difficult marriage is something I’m going to lose all motivation for.

More couples are waiting until they’re older to get married. Does this change what types of problems they’ll face in their marriages?

Gary Thomas: There are pluses and minuses. The pluses are that you’re more likely to make a wise choice with a greater understanding of who you are and what would constitute a wise match. Also, assuming a greater level of maturity, the level of unhealthy conflict should be lessened somewhat. On the other hand, the longer you wait to get married, the more difficult it is to break out of your routines. For some people, their new spouse ends up irritating them with tiny, “non-moral” issues like the way they squeeze the toothpaste, what direction the toilet paper hangs, what time they wake up or go to sleep—anything that differs from a routine they’ve come to know so well.

Why do you think marriage is supposed to do more than just make us happy?

Gary Thomas: Because happiness is a byproduct of a life faithfully lived. John Wesley said no one is truly happy who is not also pursuing holy, and that’s rather self-evident if you just take a look around you. Addicts aren’t truly “happy”—they have moments of pleasure, but much pain. People with out-of-control anger issues, materialistic hearts, or malicious tongues are never ultimately happy.

So we pursue holiness and wait for happiness. And pursuing holiness means pursuing the presence of God—which brings his fellowship, his empowering strength, his grace, his wisdom, his counsel.

I do believe marriage is an inherently difficult relationship—wonderful and enthralling and at times even rapturous, but still difficult. And the beauty behind the difficulty is that it makes me ever more dependent on God. Just like my wife kind of needs to keep me around to open tight jars, so we need to “keep God around” to learn how to love, to be kind, to forgive, to serve. The call of marriage seems beyond impossible at times, but that just points us right back to a God who supernaturally meets and empowers us.

How does the Bible define holiness?

Gary Thomas: Holiness is best defined as Christ-likeness. Even more, as being an open and receiving vessel for the ongoing presence of Christ—being loved, accepted and empowered by him to love, accept, and encourage others. This goes far beyond the mere remembrance or imitation of Christ, to abiding in the real, living, and ascended Christ.

How can marriage make people holy?

Gary Thomas: In the same way a gym can make people stronger: inviting God to stretch (and even create) “spiritual muscles” so that we can better give, forgive, love, serve, confess, be accountable, die to selfishness and pride, and become more sensitive and understanding.

How can marital sexuality provide spiritual insights and character development?

Gary Thomas: It invites us to explore what it means to serve by giving some of the highest forms of pleasure known in human experience. It offers the opportunity to selflessly give what you have (an imperfect body, for starters) rather than withhold what you’re ashamed of not having. It teaches us how to handle power (the power of being the only one who can meet a spouse’s particular desire) without manipulation or malice, but with generosity and kindness. It invites us to become radically vulnerable to another human being and thus experience some rather profound aspects of community. It teaches us to worship a God who is so kind and good that he invented something so simultaneously holy and intoxicating. It reminds us that God is a God who created and who celebrates pure pleasure. Sexuality also overwhelms us when it allows us to participate in the creation of another human being.

You wrote Sacred Marriage when you were 38. What have you learned about marriage since the book first released?

Gary Thomas: Because Sacred Marriage isn’t a “how to” book, it has held up fairly well. I combed the best of Christian classical literature to get at its root dimensions and purpose.

But now, having been married 31 years instead of 15, I have a greater understanding of the joys and intimacy that come from being joined in God. I have a greater passion for what it means to have a partner who is earnestly seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. It’s typical for many empty-nesters to call this season of marriage some of the richest years yet, and that’s certainly been true for us.

Because we’ve worked through many of the difficulties referenced in Sacred Marriage, I’m not sure I could write that book today—or, at least, it would read very differently. So I’m glad I wrote it when it did. It captures a certain season in marriage that we need to be honest about.

What I didn’t yet know when I was 38 was the full reward awaiting those who will press on to the “other side” of difficulty. It’s not that our marriage is even now always easy; it’s just that I didn’t realize how truly rich it can be. A sacred marriage is much better than even infatuation.

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Bio: Gary Thomas is Writer in Residence (and serves on the teaching team) at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas. He’s the author of 18 books that have sold over a million copies worldwide and have been translated into a dozen languages, including Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of Their Husbands, Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls, The Sacred Search: Couple’s Conversation Guide, Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?, and Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul. Gary’s new book is Cherish: The One Word That Changes Everything for Your Marriage, which will be published January 2017. He and his wife Lisa have been married for more than 30 years.

Father’s Day Bible Quiz: How Many of These Biblical Fathers Do You Know?

Father’s Day will be June 18, 2017 in the USA.
Browse the Gifts for Dads section in the Bible Gateway Store.

We dug into our reservoir of Bible trivia and put together a quiz to test your knowledge of the Bible’s fathers! Some of these men are models that dads can follow today, while others are living lessons in bad parenthood. Can you identify them all?

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Once you’re done with the quiz, challenge your friends to take it too! And if you want to learn more about what it means to be a good dad in God’s eyes, you can explore the topic of biblical parenthood further in one of our family and parenting devotionals! Stop by our Father’s Day page to learn more and sign up.

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