The Inspiration of the Old Testament

[tab:The Text]

The Text

As we sat down to study Plato’s Republic, the professor raised no questions about our text’s essential reliability and integrity. Alternate translations were mentioned, but briefly. There was never any doubt as to the book’s unity or authorship. We were never offered any grand theories on where the “real” writers of the book obtained their source materials, or what agenda they might have been pushing. Plato and his work were never belittled. The editor of our English edition praised the Republic as a “great work.” Our task as students was clear: we were there to explore the authentic writings of a real historical figure who lived in Athens over 2,300 years ago.

We could only wish that the seminaries and divinity schools of the world would treat the Hebrew Scriptures with at least the same confidence and respect. Take the Book of Malachi, for instance. Even ancient commentators and copyists were at odds over its authorship. The word “malachi” means, literally, “my messenger.” So, as some have speculated, we know the author’s title; we just don’t know his name. When it comes to dating, most commentators pick the 5th century BC, but a few estimates differ by centuries in either direction.

The unity of Malachi has come under fire as well. John M.P. Smith describes verse 4 of chapter 4 as nothing more than a marginal note. It was added, he thinks, by “D”—a hypothetical editor who insists on strict adherence to the Mosaic covenant. Being a good legalist, D reads Malachi, fails to see explicit mention of the Law, and adds this verse to bring the book in line with his own agenda. This is a classic case of source criticism run amok. There simply is no evidence for D and, besides, Malachi has taken ample opportunity to remind his readers of their longstanding responsibility to God, His priests, and temple sacrifice (1:7-8; 2:8; 3:8-9, etc.).

Malachi is made to suffer these indignities, and yet we have more support for Malachi and the other books of the Bible than we have for any other example of ancient writing. Plato wrote his Republic a few decades after Malachi put down his prophetic pen. Sitting today in the National Library of France is the oldest, most complete copy of the Republic. This manuscript, known as the Codex Parisinus 1807, dates to no earlier than the 9th century. That compares favorably to our primary Hebrew sources for the Old Testament. Our best sources include the Aleppo Codex, which dates to around AD 920, and the Leningrad Codex, which is more complete and dates to around AD 1008.

On that basis alone, Malachi should be given the benefit of the doubt, but having complete manuscripts in the original language is only part of the story. Looking further afield will turn up scant textual evidence for the Republic earlier than the Parisinus 1807.

The situation is rather different for Malachi. A particularly resourceful student of the Bible living in AD 200 might have consulted the official Hebrew text, the venerable and popular Greek Septuagint, the newer Greek translations by Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotian, the Peshitta in Syriac, and a Latin translation of the Septuagint. Some of these manuscripts have weathered the intervening centuries better than others, but even today they provide an embarrassment of riches for modern scholars.

We cannot neglect the contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Portions of Malachi, dating to around the mid-2nd century BC, were found in Cave 4 at Qumran. This gets us very, very close to the prophet himself.

Readers in the same period surely had access to copies of Plato’s writings as well. Several fragments from the Republic, dating to the second and third centuries AD, have been found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. But Plato was already old news. Even the Neoplatonists were striking out in very different directions, and apparently had little interest in preserving the entire body of Plato’s works for posterity.

The great Bible translator, Jerome, offered the following remark in his commentary on Galatians (c. AD 387): “How many are there who know the books, or even the name of Plato? You may find here and there a few old men, who have nothing else to do, who study them in a corner.” That’s a little harsh, perhaps, but Jerome was in a good position to assess current trends in Greek scholarship. It seems that no one was bothering to do for Plato what Jerome was doing for the Bible.

So as popular and esteemed as Plato may have been through the centuries, our textual witnesses for the Republic pale in comparison to a book written less than a hundred years earlier, in an obscure language, in a political backwater of the Persian empire.

If we look at earlier Greek writers such as Homer, or close religious contemporaries of Malachi such as Zoroaster, Siddhartha Gautama (“Buddha”), and the authors of the Hindu Upanishads, the textual gap only widens. My point is not to undermine our confidence in the Republic. There is a school of thought in academia that would dismiss the Great Books of the Western canon as irrelevant and possibly even a threat to political correctness and multiculturalism. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that view. My point is that the integrity of the Biblical text should actually command more respect and confidence than the surviving works of Plato.

As different as Malachi and the Republic might be, their appearance on the world stage so close in time invites the kind of comparison I am making here. Contrary to the basic mistrust of Scripture we encounter in certain elite circles, Christians are actually in a very strong position to defend the essential reliability of the Biblical text. If the Republic gets a “free pass” in the graduate seminar rooms of our state-run colleges then, on the same basic criteria, so should Malachi and the rest of the Bible.

[tab:Unity of the Message]

The Unity of the Message

Of course, there is more at stake here than reliability. The Bible was “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV). When Paul made this statement, offering us a brand new Greek word in the process (theopneustos), he must have had the Old Testament in view (vs. 15). Until the New Testament was finished, the word “Scriptures” would typically refer to the sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible. Even so, Peter acknowledged that the writings of his fellow apostle were on the same level as “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).

Peter’s discussion is particularly relevant on this point. His epistles were probably intended for a predominately Gentile readership (1 Peter 1:14; 2 Peter 3:1). In all likelihood, new Christians knew neither the content nor the true significance of a literary tradition that had been confined, for the most part, to Jewish synagogues. The apostle’s constant use of Old Testament themes reminds his readers that they follow the Jewish Messiah—the Anointed One of ancient Hebrew Scripture. No doubt the Septuagint was a huge help for Greek-speaking Christians, but Peter’s audience needed to know that the Spirit who had worked in the prophets of old is the same Spirit now working in them (1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:19-21). The Spirit of Christ who had worked through the ministry of Noah is the same Spirit of Christ now working through the ministry of the apostles (1 Peter 3:18-19). The God who spoke the world into existence and judged it by a Great Flood is the same God who will judge us and destroy the material world (2 Peter 3:1-13).

In a truly masterful way, Peter is bringing the unity of Scripture into full view. This is a feature of sacred writings that we don’t expect to find in the works of mere mortals. It is possible to arrange the works of Plato in roughly chronological order. The Republic turns up somewhere in the middle of the philosopher’s long career. Not surprisingly, we find that Plato changes his mind over time. God, however, is intrinsically unchangeable (Malachi 3:6; see also Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17).

Skeptics often scoff at this claim. God would be better, they think, if He were able to change and learn from His mistakes—just like us. But this is man’s attempt to create God in his own image. The God of theism is, by definition, all-knowing (Psalm 139). Such a God would never have to stumble and lurch haphazardly in the direction of truth. Even before the creation of the world, God knew that a sacrifice would have to be made for the sins of man (1 Peter 1:20). This plan of redemption never wavers from one end of the Bible to the other.

Thus it is no surprise to find that Malachi’s message is consistent with the rest of Scripture. There is still only one God, He is still the Creator, He is still the God of Jacob, He still loves us, He is still gracious, He still has expectations of worship and behavior, and He is still promising judgment and salvation. The God encountered by Malachi is indistinguishable from the God encountered by Moses over a thousand years before.

Critics, no doubt, are tempted to dismiss such unity as contrived and artificial. Malachi is simply following the party line and later editors would have purged any hints of heterodoxy. But if the alleged editors were smart enough to bring the whole of Scripture in line with their particular view of God, why weren’t they smart enough to cover their tracks? Why weren’t they smart enough to smooth over all the differences and contradictions imagined by the so-called higher critics? The fact is, we know what happens to Sacred writings when men are left to their own devices (2 Peter 3:16). Malachi does not innovate away from God; he calls his people back to God.

[tab:Miracle of Predictive Prophecy]

The Miracle of Predictive Prophecy

Malachi not only is consistent with what has gone before, he is consistent and indeed anticipates the mystery of God which is finally revealed in Christ (Romans 16:25-26). As we often hear, the function of a prophet was to forth-tell as well as to fore-tell. There is little doubt that Malachi, like Plato, attempts to lead his readers to a certain conclusion. The absolutely critical difference, as we have noted already, is that Malachi was moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).

If the Bible truly is from God, we would expect to find special knowledge about human history (Isaiah 41:21-23). After all, this is a history in which our Savior God is intensely interested (Galatians 4:4-5). And yet specific events, notably future events, would be unknown to men were it not for the direct revelation of God.

Malachi does not keep us waiting long. In the opening verses of chapter 1, the prophet compares Judah with Edom. While both nations had endured devastation, the Edomites would never recover (1:4; see also Obadiah). Nabateans and other Arab peoples were already pushing Edom northward and westward out of their traditional homeland. By 312 BC the invading Nabateans had made their home in Petra, the former capital of Edom. The dwindling remnants settled just south of Judah, but even there they found no refuge. Idumea, as their new land had come to be known, was subdued by Judas Maccabeus and then forcibly integrated into Jewish society by John Hyrcanus in 126 BC. References to Idumea disappear after the final Roman-Jewish war in AD 135.

To avoid the obvious implications, Hans Spoer changed predictive prophecy into news reporting by the simple expedience of dating Malachi to the time of Hyrcanus. As we have seen, neither internal evidence from the book itself, nor external evidence from the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other textual witnesses will support such a late date.

Finally, Malachi writes of a messenger who will “prepare the way” before God (3:1). When we turn the pages of the Bible, skipping ahead over 400 years in the process, we find fulfillment of the prophecy in the person of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10). This is not using the Bible to prove the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew has its own witness independent of Malachi. Moreover, the link between prophecy and fulfillment is established, according to Matthew, by none other than Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus is the Son of God, as we can establish independently of Malachi 3:1, then His testimony on this passage is unimpeachable.

[tab:Power to Transform]

The Power to Transform

In the Republic, Plato tries to answer the question: Why is it better to be just than unjust? Plato answers on a number of levels: being just is a personal virtue worth having for its own sake; being just maintains a healthy soul; and being just delivers the best pleasure of all—the pleasure of philosophical contemplation.

All of this seems rather academic. Is learning really the greatest pleasure that human beings can possibly experience? Why should we accept a philosopher’s word on this? Plato anticipated this objection, and his reply shows a general disdain for the traditional religion of his day. The Greek gods of the Homeric legends did not value justice for its own sake. They could conspire with a wicked man against a just man for no particular reason. On this arrangement there was no incentive for justice.

Plato finds himself having to concoct a new myth in which the gods consistently reward the virtuous and punish the wicked. He is, in effect, offering a version of Pascal’s wager: let us live a virtuous life just in case there are gods who will judge us in the end.

There is something deeply dishonest and dissatisfying about a wager-based faith. First, if we only act as if the gods exist, are we really living justly? On Plato’s own account, the rational part of a just soul is always in charge, and yet Plato is asking him to live a lie. Second, if we experience constant hardships in the course of pursuing justice, Plato’s fictional gods can do nothing for us. Something less than justice-at-any-cost might give us a better life here and now. And finally, if the myth is aimed only at the gullible—only at those ready to accept Plato’s story at face value—has justice really been served?

In the end, Plato’s call to virtue falls flat. He wants us to cultivate justice for its own sake, but why should we? Plato lacked the substance to back up his claims.

The people of Malachi’s day also struggled with justice. If the faithful have become as mourners, and the wicked go unpunished, why bother serving God (3:13-15)? The Lord answers through His prophet: Because God will spare the righteous in the Day of Judgment (3:17-18). Unlike the gods of ancient Greece, the God of the Bible is just. But that’s not all. Unlike the gods of ancient Greece, or the gods of Plato’s own storytelling, the God of the Bible actually exists. He is not a figment of our desperate and lonely imagination; He is not a simple matter of wishful thinking. Indeed, the Lord God has openly demonstrated his favor to the descendants of Jacob (Malachi 1:2). He is clearly our Creator (2:10). He has proved Himself attentive to those who esteem His name (3:16).

The ever present reality of a just God grounds our desire to act justly in His name. Micah’s prophetic word has the power to transform the lives of men in a way that Plato’s secular musings do not. And so we have something “more sure,” Peter says, namely “the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

[A condensed version of this article appeared in Gospel Advocate, July 2008, pp. 12-14.]


© 2008 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

Printer friendly version Printer friendly version

Comments are closed.