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Literalism: Isn't the Bible Historically Unreliable and Regressive?

We can and should trust the Bible historically, culturally, and most of all, personally.

From the editor:

Anyone who has heard Tim Keller preach or has read any of his books knows how effective he is at offering an apologetic for just about any Christian tenet. Many of you will remember, for example, Keller's powerful sermon on hell that we posted late last year, in which he convincingly argues that the Christian understanding of hell is crucial for understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God. In the sermon just below, Keller wades into choppy waters once more. This time he's tackling whether or not the Bible should be seen as historically unreliable and regressive. Read on to watch a master at work.


One of the things that most troubles people about Christianity is the Bible. They say something like this: "There are many good things in the Bible, but you shouldn't take every word of it literally." Though I heard this for many years, I was never quite sure what they meant. But I have now come to realize they are saying this: "There are many good things in the Bible, but you shouldn't insist that everyone believe and follow everything in it, because there are some things in the Bible that are just wrong—things that are historically unreliable. The Bible holds within it legends, and we don't know what really happened or what was actually said. Much of the Bible is culturally regressive and promotes certain views that are best left behind. So, for these reasons, there are good things in the Bible, but don't insist on it being entirely trustworthy and completely authoritative in everything it says."

What do we say to that? I like to argue to the contrary, of course. I like to argue that you can and should trust the Bible historically, culturally, and most of all, personally.

You can and should trust the Bible historically.

First, you can and should trust the Bible historically.

Many people today say that the Bible—especially the gospel accounts of Jesus' life—was concocted by the political winners. "Who can ever really know what the original Jesus was like?" they say. "The idea that he claimed to be divine, did miracles, died on a cross, was raised to life and people saw him—all of those ideas, those accounts, were written later by church leaders who were trying to consolidate their power to build a movement. We don't know what really happened. They suppressed the evidence of the original Jesus who was just a human teacher."

What do we have to say to that? We would have to say that that's not a fair assessment—that it's not actually right. There are several reasons why you can trust what the Bible says about Jesus, but I want to mention just three.

First of all the New Testament accounts of Jesus were written too early to be legends. Look at the very beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Luke has written an account of Jesus' life, and notice what he says to his readers: I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, and I have checked what I have written with eyewitnesses.

Luke is saying that even though he is writing 30 to 40 years after the events of Jesus' resurrection, a lot of people who heard Jesus was still alive—who saw that Jesus was still alive—were still around. He is inviting anyone who reads his words to check his sources.

Writing even more recently than Luke—in other words, even closer to the events of Jesus' life—was Paul. He wrote his letters only 15-20 years after Jesus' ministry on earth. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul, too, says many people saw Jesus appear to them after his death. At one point he says Jesus appeared to 500 people at once. Paul then goes on to say, in essence: Most of them are still alive, and you can still go talk to them.

In an effort to promote the Christian faith, Paul could not possibly have written in a public document that there 500 people who saw Jesus at once—most of them still alive—unless that was really the case.

Consider also Philippians 2. Here Paul quotes a hymn of praise to Jesus' deity and divinity. If Philippians was written only 15 years after the events of Christ's life, and the hymn Paul is quoting had been written by somebody even earlier than that, we know that people were already worshiping Jesus as God. They believed his claims to be God, believed the miracles, believed the crucifixion and death, believed the resurrection appearances.

In The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown depicts Constantine as having basically decreed Jesus' divinity in 325 AD, suppressing all evidence of Jesus' original life as a human teacher. But as we have just seen, the documents of the New Testament are way too early for that to be true. Many people say, "Well, The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Most people who read it know that the material isn't true." But there are many who think that the notion of the divinity of Jesus was a later teaching that suppressed the early teaching of his humanity. They think that's the historically accurate account. But it's just not true at all. In fact after reading The Da Vinci Code, one historian had this to say about Brown's account: "Dan Brown says that when the Emperor Constantine declared Jesus divine, Christianity won the religious competition in the Roman Empire by an exercise of power rather than by any attraction it exerted. In actual historical fact, the church had won that competition long before the time it had any power—when it was still under sporadic persecution. If a historian were cynical, you would say Constantine chose Christianity because it had already won, and he wanted to back a winner."

The dates for the writing of the New Testament documents essentially show that everything about Jesus—his words, his death, his resurrection, his claims to be deity—really happened. Anyone could write documents 200-300 years later when all the eyewitnesses were dead and say anything they wanted about a figure—especially back then. But that person could not say Jesus was crucified and then resurrected when thousands of people were still alive who had seen whether he had been or not. If Jesus hadn't been crucified, if there hadn't been appearances after his death, if there hadn't been an empty tomb, if he hadn't made these claims, and these public documents were just going around claiming all these things to be true—Christianity would never have gotten off the ground.

Second, the New Testament documents are too counterproductive in their content to be legends. The theory is that the Bible doesn't give you what actually happened. Instead, what you have in the gospels is what the church leaders wanted you to believe happened, because this is the view of Jesus that helps them consolidate their power and build their movement.


If I'm a church leader living about 70-80 years after Jesus, and I'm concocting these stories, would I record that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked the Father if he could get out of the events that were about to take place? Would I put in my account the moment where Jesus looks up from the cross and says, "You've forsaken me"? Such passages are confusing and offensive even today—let alone to first century readers.

If I was making up these stories, would I have included verse 24 of our text for today—that those who first saw Jesus raised from the dead were women? At a time when women's testimony was not admissible evidence in court because of their low social status, all four gospel accounts say the original eyewitnesses were women. If you were making these stories up in an effort to consolidate your power, you would never make women the eyewitnesses.

Consider also the character of the leaders of the early church. When you study the lives of the apostles in the New Testament, they look like jerks. They look like fools. They look slow of heart. They look like cowards. They look terrible. If you were a leader of the early church, would you make up stories that highlight such unflattering features? Of course you wouldn't! The only possible explanation for these features being listed in the text is because they are true. They're totally counterproductive for the power of the leaders of the early church. The New Testament documents are too counterproductive to be legends.

Finally, the New Testament documents are too detailed in their form to be legends. One of the problems with saying the gospel accounts have to be legends is that we don't know much about ancient fiction. The novel or the short story, in which you have realistic fiction written almost like history, is an invention of the 18th century. In ancient times legends were not written like that. You would never start a myth with an invitation to readers to test the facts. Read Beowulf. Read the Greek myths, the Roman myths. Go read anything from the ancient world. They don't start out the way Luke begins—with a challenge. C. S. Lewis was an expert in ancient literature. He had this to say when looking at the gospels: "I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. [With] the gospel texts, there are only two possible views. Either this is historical reportage, or else some unknown ancient writer without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative. The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned how to read."

Here's the point: The New Testament documents don't have the form of legends. They were written too early, the accounts are too counterproductive, and they don't match the fictional style of the day. You can trust these accounts historically. They tell you what really happened.

You can and should trust the Bible culturally.

First of all, you can and should trust the Bible historically. Second, you can and should trust the Bible culturally.

In recent years I've noticed that more people are troubled by the cultural aspects of the Bible than the historical aspects we just covered. People read things in the Bible that they consider offensive, primitive, or regressive. They see these things and say, "Look at what this teaches! That's awful! We got over that a long time ago, and it's best to leave it in the past."

I don't have enough time to go down the list of all the things in the Bible that offend people. It's a very long list, and it shifts around all the time. Instead, I would like to give you three ways to handle any text of the Bible that seems to offend you.

First of all, when you encounter a text that strikes you as offensive, please consider the possibility that it doesn't teach what you think it teaches. Notice in our second text for the morning that the Emmaus disciples are upset. Why? As Jesus is going to show them, they think the Bible teaches something it doesn't. When Jesus sees that they are upset, he says: You didn't really understand the Scriptures. You were not patient with the passages in question.

Let me give you a personal example of this from my own life. Many years ago, when I first started reading the Book of Genesis, it was very upsetting to me. Here are all these spiritual heroes—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and look at how they treat women. They engage in polygamy, and they buy and sell their wives. It was an awful to read their stories at times. But then I read Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative . Alter is a Jewish scholar at Berkeley whose expertise is ancient Jewish literature. In his book he says there are two institutions present in the Book of Genesis that were universal in ancient cultures: polygamy and primogeniture. Polygamy said a husband could have multiple wives, and primogeniture said the oldest son got everything—all the power, all the money. In other words, the oldest son basically ruled over everyone else in the family. Alter points out that when you read the Book of Genesis, you'll see two things. First of all, in every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. Second, when it comes to primogeniture, in every generation God favors the younger son over the older. He favors Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Alter says that you begin to realize what the Book of Genesis is doing—it is subverting, not supporting, those ancient institutions at every turn.

When I read Alter's book, I then reread the Book of Genesis and loved it. And then it hit me: What if when I was younger, I had abandoned my trust in the Bible because of these accounts in Genesis? What if I had drop-kicked the Bible and the Christian faith, missing out on a personal relationship with Christ—all because I couldn't understand the behavior of the patriarchs? The lesson is simple: Be patient with the text. Consider the possibility that it might not be teaching what you think it's teaching.

Second, whenever you encounter something in a text that seems offensive to you, consider the possibility that you are misunderstanding what the Bible teaches because of your cultural blinders.

The Emmaus disciples understandably misunderstood the prophecies about the Messiah because, as Jews, they were only thinking of the redemption of Israel. They actually admit as much in verses 20-21. They weren't thinking of the redemption of the whole world, and therefore they had cultural blinders on. They were trying to read the prophecies, and they misread them. They couldn't understand why Jesus did what he did. In the same way, I want you to consider how easy it is for us to do the same.

Let me offer just one case study—one that people consistently mention as a reason not to believe the Bible. I can't tell you how often I hear people say, "The Bible condones slavery, and slavery is wrong, so who knows what else it's saying that's wrong!" But does the Bible actually condone slavery? "Of course it does!" some would reply. "Just look at these passages where Paul says, 'Slaves, obey your masters.' There it is! Paul condones slavery!" But if you study the one book of the New Testament where Paul most directly speaks of a master/servant relationship—the Book of Philemon, where Paul speaks of the relationship between a servant named Onesimus and his master, Philemon—you would see the servant/master relationship is more along the lines of something you might call indentured servanthood. It's not what we think of as slavery. When you and I see the word "slave" in the Bible, we immediately think of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century New World slavery: race-based, African slavery. When you do that, when you read it through those blinders, you aren't understanding what the Bible's teaching.

Many years ago historian Murray Harris wrote a book about what slavery was like in the first century Greco-Roman world. He says that in Greco-Roman times, slaves were not distinguishable from anyone else by race, speech, or clothing. They looked and lived like everyone else and were never segregated off from the rest of society in any way. What's more, slaves were more educated than their owners in many cases and many times held high managerial positions. And from a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers and therefore were not themselves usually poor and often accrued enough personal capital to buy themselves out. Finally, very few persons were slaves for life in the first century. Most expected to be manumitted after about ten years or by their late thirties at the latest.

In contrast, New World slavery of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was race-based, and its default mode was slavery for life. The African slave trade was started and resourced through kidnapping, which the Bible unconditionally condemns in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 and Deuteronomy 24:7. Therefore, while the early Christians, like Saint Paul, discouraged first century slavery—saying to slaves, "get free if you can"—they didn't campaign to end it. But eighteenth and nineteenth century Christians, when faced with New World-style slavery, did work for its complete abolition, because it could not be squared in any way with biblical teaching.

So, when you hear somebody say, "The Bible condones slavery," you and I can say, "No it didn't—not the way you and I define 'slavery.' It's not talking about that." (Of course, several will still point out that people in the south used biblical passages like "Slaves obey your masters" to try to subjugate the African slaves. That's true. But they, too, were reading it through their cultural blinders. Their interpretation was an illegitimate twisting and perversion of what Scripture taught.)

Aside from the possibility that a text might not mean what we think it means, and aside from the possibility that we might misinterpret a text given our cultural blinders, we must also keep in mind that certain biblical texts might offend us because of an unexamined assumption of the superiority of our cultural moment.

Many of us read a certain passage of Scripture and say, "That's so regressive, so offensive." But we ought to entertain the idea that maybe we feel that way because in our particular culture that text is a problem. In other cultures that passage might not come across as regressive or offensive.

Let's look at just one example. In individualistic, Western societies, we read the Bible, and we have a problem with what it says about sex. But then we read what the Bible says about forgiveness—"forgive your enemy;" "forgive your brother seventy times seven;" "turn the other cheek;" "when your enemy asks for your shirt, give him your cloak as well"—and we say, "How wonderful!" It's because we are driven by a culture of guilt. But if you were to go to the Middle East, they would think that what the Bible has to say about sex is pretty good. (Actually, they might feel it's not strict enough!) But when they would read what the Bible says about forgiving your enemies, it would strike them as absolutely crazy. It's because their culture is not an individualistic society like ours. It's more of a shame culture than a guilt culture.

Let me ask you a question: If you're offended by something in the Bible, why should your cultural sensibilities trump everybody else's? Why should we get rid of the Bible because it offends your culture? Let's do a thought experiment for a second. If the Bible really was the revelation of God, and, therefore, it wasn't the product of any one culture, wouldn't it contradict every culture at some point? Therefore, if it's really from God, wouldn't it have to offend your cultural sensibilities at some point? Therefore, when you read the Bible, and you find some part of it outrageous and offensive, that's proof that it's probably true, that it's probably from God. It's not a reason to say the Bible isn't God's Word; it's a reason to say it is. What makes you think that because this part or that part of God's Word is offensive, you can forget Christianity altogether?

You can and should trust the Bible personally.

First of all, you can and should trust the Bible historically. Second, you can and should trust the Bible culturally. Third, you can and should trust the Bible personally.

It is often hinted—and sometimes said outright—that people who believe in the absolute authority of the Bible, and therefore believe they should submit to its authority, have a cold, legalistic kind of faith. This can certainly be true of someone. But I would like to make the case that a completely authoritative Bible is the prerequisite for a warm, personal relationship with God—not the enemy of it.

Look at verse 32 in our text. When the Emmaus disciples looked back on everything that had been said, they summarized it like this: "Were not our hearts burning within us as he opened to us the Scripture?" In English, when we speak of the heart, we are speaking of the seat of our emotions. But in the Bible, the heart is the seat of the whole person. Greek scholars will tell you that this phrase—"were not our hearts burning"—speaks of an uncontrollable desire for someone. In other words, the Emmaus disciples were saying that they had had a life-changing personal encounter with the Lord. They felt their hearts going out to him. They felt a love they had never experienced before. And when did they feel it? When the Scriptures were properly expounded to them—when they understood what the Scriptures really meant.

Notice how Jesus expounds the Scriptures. Verses 20 and 21 are almost comical—especially in light of what we know about the purpose of Christ's life, death, burial, and resurrection. One disciple explains how Jesus had been handed over to be sentenced to death and then crucified. He adds, "We had hoped he was going to be the one to redeem Israel." Jesus turns to these two disciples and says, "How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken." He says: You misunderstood Scripture! Christ had to suffer these things and then enter his glory!

The key verse in our passage is 27: "Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." What Jesus is saying is, "Everything in the Bible is about me. From Moses to the prophets, it's all about me."

If you think the Bible is all about you and what you must do and how you must live and how you have to do everything to get the blessing, then you don't need a Messiah who dies for you. All you need is the rules. There are only two ways to read the Bible: (1) You can read it as if it's all about you and what you must do to be blessed, or (2) you can read every part of the Bible as if it's all about Jesus and what he has done for you. If you read the Bible that first way, that is when an elevation of the Bible can lead to a cold and legalistic lifestyle.

Let's do what Jesus did that day on the road to Emmaus. Let's begin with Moses—just Moses, because of the time limits. What is the story of Moses about? Is it about you? Is it about how you've got to be faithful like Moses? How you've got to be brave so that you can face down Pharaoh? How you've got to be a good leader so you can lead the children of Israel out? Is it all about you? No! If you really listen to what Scripture is saying, it shows you that God did not come to Moses and say, "You are such a good man. You know what? You deserve to be the leader. Because you are really faithful to me, because you obey the Ten Commandments, I'm going to let you lead the children of Israel out of Egypt." Instead, here's what God is saying in the story of Moses and the Passover: "You all deserve to die because of your sins. Slay a lamb, put the blood on the doorpost, take shelter under the blood of that lamb, and when the angel of death comes by you won't be paying for your sins." Jesus would put it this way: "Do you really think that the holy God of the universe put your sins away because of those sweet, wooly little lambs? I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I am God come into this world to absorb in myself your debt so that we can be together for eternity."

On that road to Emmaus, Jesus probably went on to show his presence in the rest of the details of the story of Moses. The rock of Moses, smitten in the wilderness for the sake of water in the desert—that's Jesus. Jesus was smitten with the rod of God's justice so we could have water in this desert. Jesus is also the tabernacle, the temple, the sacrifice, the altar, the light, the bread, the prophet, the priest, the king. Jesus was saying to those on the road to Emmaus that it's not about them or what they do, it's about him. And Jesus is saying to you today through his Word that it's not about you or what you have to do. It's about him and what he has done. There isn't any place for a cold, legalistic approach to life.

Isn't that good news personally? Doesn't that make you want him more? Don't you begin to feel your heart burn? Isn't there a kind of longing? You have in your heart a longing for purpose, a longing for infinite love, a longing for significance and security that nothing in this world can possibly satisfy. Your hearts are not going to be satisfied until you find him, and the way you find him is when in some particular Scripture text you see that it is really about him and what he has done.


Let me close with an additional word of challenge. What we're talking about is not just simply understanding that everything in Scripture is all about Jesus. You still have to see it as authoritative. You have to submit to it for a full personal encounter.

One of the ways that I know my wife and I have a really good personal relationship is that we argue. Kathy and I were watching a remake of the film The Stepford Wives. The movie tells the story of a group of wives in whom you just stick a little microchip and they never argue with or contradict their husbands again. You see, if there is no conflict, you don't have a person anymore. You have a robot. If you have a person, you're in a personal relationship where there will be contradiction and conflict. If that's gone, one of you has stuck a microchip in the other person. Where am I going with this? If you consider the Bible and say, "I like a lot of things in the Bible, but not this part," that's a good thing. Unless you have a completely authoritative Bible that can contradict you and come after you, you've got a Stepford God. You've put a chip in him. You have a god of your own making. An authoritative Bible that you have to submit to whether you like it or not is not the enemy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God—it's the precondition.

The person who had the greatest relationship with God was Jesus. When he came as a human being, he bled Scripture. He was always talking about it. When Peter challenged him, he pointed to Scripture needing to be fulfilled. When he was confronted by the Devil, how did he respond? With Scripture. When he confronted hell on the cross, he quoted Psalm 22. When you cut Jesus, he bled Scripture. That's how he had this incredible relationship with God. Jesus shows us the relationship with Scripture we've got to have.

Do you want your heart to burn within you? Do you want the deepest longings of your heart to find their rest in a personal encounter with God? Go where the Scripture is expounded. Go to Bible studies where together in community you figure out what Scripture says. Make sure that you personally dig into it all the time yourself as an individual.

Literalism: Isn't the Bible Historically Unreliable and Regressive? was preached 11.5.06.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment.

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Sermon Outline:


One of the things that most troubles people about Christianity is that they perceive the Bible to be historically unreliable and regressive.

I. You can and should trust the Bible historically.

II. You can and should trust the Bible culturally.

III. You can and should trust the Bible personally.


Do you want your heart to burn within you? Do you want the deepest longings of your heart to find their rest in a personal encounter with God? Go where the Scripture is expounded.

Literalism: Isn't the Bible Historically Unreliable and Regressive? was preached 11.5.06.