The Word of God “lives and abides.” Thus wrote Peter, the inspired apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:23). To buttress this claim regarding the enduring nature of the sacred Word, the divine spokesman quoted from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (40:6ff.), declaring: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: But the word of the Lord abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). Men come and go. Generations vanish. But the Holy Scriptures march on triumphantly.
There is a saying: “Homer must be handled with care.” The allusion, of course, is to the compositions of the blind poet of ancient Greece. The implication in the proverb is this—Homer’s works have been treasured and preserved cautiously for centuries. And yet, in spite of this meticulous care, only scant copies of Homer’s writings survive. There is no complete copy of the poet’s works prior to the thirteenth century A.D.—more than 2,000 years after the Greek writer lived (Schrivener, 1883, p. 4). By way of vivid contrast, the Bible, though viciously opposed and oppressed across several millennia, is reflected in thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and even today continues to be the best-selling publication in the world.
Biblical antagonists have a long and violent history as they have sought, frequently by force, to eliminate the sacred Scriptures from public access. Reflect upon the following examples of malevolence toward the Creator and His Word.
When the noble Hebrew king, Josiah, was killed in battle, his son Jehoahaz came to the throne. He reigned but three months before Pharaoh-necoh of Egypt put him in chains and transported him to the land of the Pyramids. A brother, Eliakim, was placed upon the throne; his name was changed to Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim began to reign when he was twenty-five years of age. He taxed the Jews heavily on behalf of Pharaoh. He strayed from the Lord and immersed the nation in idolatry (2 Kings 23:28-37). The prophet Jeremiah was commissioned by Jehovah to write a sacred scroll, which threatened divine destruction unless the king and his people repented of their wickedness. Jehoiakim treated the matter with absolute contempt. After briefly listening to the message being read, he confiscated the scroll, cut up the leaves with a knife, and cast them into a fire (Jeremiah 36). But the Holy Word was not to be dismissed so easily.
After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire was divided into four segments (cf. Daniel 8:8), and the Jewish people fell under the control of a remarkably evil ruler whose name was Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus, known popularly as “the madman,” launched a bloody persecution against the Hebrew people. One aspect of his vendetta was an attempt to destroy copies of the Jewish Scriptures. An ancient document records this episode:
And [the officials of Antiochus] rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, and set them on fire. And wheresoever was found with any a book of the covenant, and if any consented to the law, the king’s sentence delivered him to death (The Apocrypha, I Maccabees 1:56-57).
The historian Josephus commented upon this event: “And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those [Jews] with whom they were found miserably perished also” (Antiquities, 12.5.4). The heathen plan backfired, however, for it was this very persecution that generated more intense examination of the divine Writings. Out of this circumstance the genuine books of the Old Testament canon were formally separated from contemporary spurious documents that feigned inspiration (McClintock and Strong, 1968, 2:76).
Following the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, Christianity was introduced into the Roman world. It spread like wildfire in the stifling environment of ancient paganism. Not many decades passed before Rome came to view the Christian system, with its New Testament Scriptures, as a threat to the security of the empire. And so history repeated itself. A determined effort to eradicate the Bible from antique society was initiated by the Roman ruler, Valerius Diocletian.
Diocletian occupied the Imperial throne from A.D. 284-305. In A.D. 303, he inaugurated a series of merciless persecutions upon those who professed the religion of Christ. Hurst noted:
[A]ll assemblies of Christians were forbidden and churches were ordered to be torn down. Four different edicts were issued, each excelling the preceding in intensity. One edict ordered the burning of every copy of the Bible—the first instance in [Christian] history when the Scriptures were made an object of attack (1897, 1:175).
Of course, as every student of history knows, events changed radically when Constantine the Great came to the Roman throne in A.D. 306 at the age of thirty-two. He solidified the Western empire by the defeat of his rival, Maxentius, in A.D. 312. The following year Constantine (in concert with Licinius, emperor in the East) issued a decree that granted legal protection to Christians. A form of this document is found in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (Book X, Chapter V). Once more the sacred Scriptures could find their way from places of seclusion and exert their benevolent influence.
PAGAN INTELLECTUAL ASSAULT
If one method of opposition fails, then another must be employed—so surmised the apostles of paganism. Julian, a nephew of Constantine, came to the Roman throne in A.D. 361. When Julian was quite young, his family was murdered by wicked churchmen, into whose hands he was thrust for care. This circumstance, together with his early exposure to pagan philosophy, led him to renounce Christianity at the age of twenty (though it is doubtful that he was ever sincerely disposed toward the religion of Jesus). The year he assumed Roman rule, at the age of thirty, he openly declared his hostility to the Bible (hence he became known as “Julian, the Apostate”). Three centuries of bloodshed had not enhanced the cause of heathenism. Persecution had merely accelerated the spread of the Christian cause. Julian thus determined that he, with logical argument, would destroy the influence of the Scriptures.
There had been earlier attempts to meet Christianity head-on in intellectual debate. Celsus (c. A.D. 178) had written a treatise called “True Discourse,” which was “the first literary attack upon Christianity” (Cross, 1958, p. 256). Similarly, Porphyry (c. A.D. 232-303) authored several books against the Scriptures. These efforts, however, were isolated, and largely stood in the shadow of the violent persecution of those early centuries. Now, in a period of greater tranquility, Julian would renew the assault. Shortly before his death, he wrote a bitter attack against Christianity, the only remains of which are to be found in a refutation produced by Cyril of Alexandria (c. A.D. 432). The “Apostate” merely regurgitated the arguments of Celsus and Porphyry in a modified form, expanded somewhat by his larger acquaintance with the Bible (Schaff, 1981, 3:75). While this literary effort was doubtlessly effective with some, a skeptical historian, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), penned this curious remark: “[T]he Pagans...derived, from the popular work of their Imperial missionary [Julian], an inexhaustible supply of fallacious objections” (n.d., 1:766; emp. added). “Fallacious objections?” Strange but powerful words from an infidel! Nathaniel Lardner (1684-1768), in his renowned work, The Credibility of the Gospel History has shown that Julian, in his vitriolic narrative, actually provided a number of incidental admissions that confirm the truth of most of the leading facts of Gospel history (see Schaff, 1981, 3:77-79).
The Bible has had to survive not only the persecution of its enemies, but also has had to weather the opposition of its so-called “friends” as well. Though some historical revisionists attempt to exonerate the Roman Catholic system of efforts to suppress the Holy Scriptures, the plain facts are undeniable. On numerous occasions in centuries past, church authorities had committed the Bible to flames under the guise that the translation was vulgar. The Fourth Rule of the Council of Trent stated that the indiscriminate circulation of the Scriptures in the common vernacular would generate “more harm than good.” Therefore, those reading or possessing the Bible “without...permission may not receive absolution from their sins till they have handed [copies of the Scriptures] over to the ordinary” (Schroeder, 1950, p. 274).
“Persistent effort was made by the Romanizers to suppress the English Bible. In 1543 an act was passed forbidding absolutely the use of Tyndale’s version, and any reading of the Scriptures in assemblies without royal license” (Newman, 1902, p. 262). Thousands of copies were burned. “Of the estimated 18,000 copies printed between 1525-1528, only two fragments are known to remain” (Thiessen, 1949, p. 84).
As a result of the tyrannical power of the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation was born. A by-product of the Reformation was an emphasis upon the use of the individual mind for personal Bible interpretation (as opposed to the dictums of the priesthood). While this spirit was admirable, some took it beyond the bounds of legitimacy, virtually deifying human reason. The movement was distinctly identified when Johann Selmer (1725-1791) began to argue that biblical events must be judged in the light of human reason/experience, and so, the reality of Jesus’ miracles was called into question, Christ’s deity was denied, etc. The rationalistic disposition grew rapidly in the fertile fields of the German universities, and perhaps reached its culmination with the publication of Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835), in which the author undertook to show that the Gospel accounts were mere “myths” (Hurlbut, 1954, pp. 178-179).
In France, Rationalism found a champion in Francois Marie Arouer—popularly known by his pen-name, Voltaire—a deist who produced several volumes brimming with hatred for the Bible. No one in Europe did as much to destroy faith in the Word of God as Voltaire. France rejected the Scriptures, tied a copy of the Bible to the tail of a donkey, and dragged it though the streets to the city dump, where it was ceremoniously burned. But, as Coffman notes, “since that time, the government of France has fallen thirty-five times” (1968, pp. 343-344). Voltaire predicted that within a hundred years of his death (1778) Christianity would be swept from existence and pass into history (Collett, n.d., p. 63), yet two centuries have come and gone, and today, rare is the person who owns a copy of Voltaire’s writings, while almost every home is adorned with a Bible. The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that Voltaire was “inordinately vain, and totally unscrupulous in gaining money, [and] in attacking an enemy” (1958, 23:250). Indeed! His final days were spent in agony. As an ex-Catholic, he loathed the idea of not having a “Christian burial.” He even signed a confession begging God to forgive his sins—which his biographers claim was insincere (Brandes, 1930, 2:328-329). When the composer Mozart heard of the skeptic’s death, he wrote: “[T]he ungodly, arch-villain, Voltaire, has died miserably, like a dog—just like a brute. That is his reward” (as quoted in Parton, 1881, 2:617).
In America, the battle against the Bible was led by men like Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Paine (1737-1809) came out of a Quaker background, and gained considerable prominence as a result of his writings (e.g., Common Sense) advocating America’s independence from Britain. Eventually he went to France. There he yielded to the influence of French deism, and so composed his infamous tome, The Age of Reason, which was a passionate attack against the Bible. His qualification for such a task may be illustrated by the following admission. In discussing a passage in the book of Job, Paine says: “I recollect not enough of the passages in Job to insert them correctly...for I keep no Bible” (n.d., p. 33). Again: “[When] I began the former part of The Age of Reason, I had, besides, neither Bible nor Testament to refer to, though I was writing against both...” (n.d., p. 71). So much for “scholarship.” Paine died a bitter and lonely old man, having lost most of his friends due to his political views and his hostility towards Christianity (Cross, 1958, p. 1005). His trifling little volume is mostly ignored today. In this writer’s city (Stockton, California) of more than a quarter-of-a-million people, the public library’s only copy of The Age of Reason has been checked out sixteen times in the past ten years!
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a politician who gained his real fame as an agnostic lecturer. He toured the country blasting the Bible. Quite the eloquent speaker, he was paid as much as $5,000 for some of his speeches, and thousands thronged to hear him rail against things holy. His “Mistakes of Moses” was a popular presentation. William Jennings Bryan once quipped that it would be much more interesting to hear Moses on the “Mistakes of Ingersoll.” Ingersoll had been greatly influenced by the writings of Voltaire and Paine (as well as others), and initially was a deist. Eventually, he evolved into a full-blown agnostic (Larson, 1962, pp. 76-77). Ingersoll was enamored with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and argued that Darwin’s discoveries, “carried to their legitimate conclusion,” destroy the Scriptures (as quoted in Larson, 1962, p. 223). Ingersoll’s influence pretty much died when he did. I phoned a major Barnes & Noble distribution center and inquired regarding Ingersoll’s books. Not a solitary volume was carried in their inventory! It is a fact, though, that the views of Voltaire, Ingersoll, etc., have influenced some religionists of our era. Modern theological liberalism is so doctrinally nebulous that now even skeptics are warmly regarded. A few decades ago, Dean Shaller Mathews of the theological department of the University of Chicago asserted that the days are gone when men like Robert Ingersoll would be regarded as anti-Christ (Horsch, 1938, p. 7).
Yes, its critics wax and wane, but the Bible abides. It will outlast them all. In the words of John Clifford:
Last eve I passed beside a blacksmith’s door
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
When looking in, I saw upon the floor,
Old hammers worn with beating years of time.
“How may anvils have you had,” said I,
“To wear and batter all these hammers so?”
“Just one,” said he; then said with twinkling eye,
“The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.”
And so, I thought, the anvil of God’s word
For ages skeptics’ blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The anvil is unharmed—the hammers gone!
Apocrypha, The (1894), (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons) revised edition.
Brandes, Georg (1930), Voltaire (New York: Frederick Ungar).
Coffman, Burton (1968), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation Publishing House).
Collett, Sidney (no date), All About the Bible (London: Revell).
Cross, F.L. (1958), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press).
Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958), “Voltaire,” (London: Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Eusebius (1955 reprint), Ecclesiastical History (Grand Rapids,MI: Baker).
Gibbon, Edward (no date), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Random House).
Horsch, John (1938), Modern Religious Liberalism (Chicago, IL: Bible Institute Colportage Association).
Hurlbut, J.L. (1954), The Story of the Christian Church (Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston).
Hurst, John F. (1897), History of the Christian Church (New York: Eaton & Mains).
Josephus, Flavius (1957), The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus (Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston).
Larson, Orvin (1962), American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Citadel Press).
McClintock, John and James Strong (1968, reprint), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Newman, A.H. (1902), A Manual of Church History (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society), Vol. II.
Paine, Thomas (no date), The Age of Reason (Baltimore, MD: Ottenheimer).
Parton, James (1881), Life of Voltaire (Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin).
Schaff, Phillip (1981 reprint), History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint).
Schrivener, F.H.A. (1883), Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament (Cambridge, England: Deighton, Bell & Co.).
Schroeder, H.J. (1950), Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder).
Thiessen, H.C. (1949), Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).