Monday, February 25, 2019

Anonymous Asks (28)

“How did people know about God before the Bible?”

Good question. Most of human history was a Bible-free zone.

The Bible as we know it — the 66 books with which Protestants are most familiar — is actually a relatively new thing, which is probably what the writer of today’s question is getting at. Roughly speaking, the individual books found in our Bibles today were written over a 1,600 year period beginning about 3,500 years ago, which means almost half the history our Bibles record took place millennia before anything “official” was done to preserve it.

Sixteen Hundred Years Young

That doesn’t mean every single thing the Bible records about earlier events was transmitted orally. It’s quite likely Moses and other early writers carried along by the Holy Spirit of God worked from written historical sources as well as oral, and many of the things they wrote had of necessity to be given to them by direct revelation.

Further, the books we now find conveniently side by side were not assembled into a single volume prior to about 1,600 years ago. Publicly available printed volumes did not exist until a little under 600 years ago. Mass production of the printed page had to wait for Johann Gutenberg to first invent movable type in the 1450s. “The Bible” existed during that 1,000 year period, of course, but only in the form of parchment or papyrus volumes laboriously copied by hand.

So for most of the 6,000-ish years of history we find in our Bibles, the vast majority of believers had either no Bibles at all or very, very partial Bibles, and those who had access to copies of holy writ were primarily priests and scribes. The average believer had what he or she was able to memorize or copy down, and no more.

A God Who Has Never Been Silent

So how did people know about God then? Well, God has never been silent. If there have been men and women alive, God has been speaking to them. Romans tells us that creation is such an irrefutable witness to God’s eternal power and divine nature that mankind is “without excuse”, but God has never been content to let his work do all the talking for him.

The book of Hebrews opens with the statement that God spoke to men “long ago, at many times and in many ways.” Here the writer has in mind “our fathers”, specifically meaning the Israelite people, but the statement is true of all men. Adam was not an Israelite, and God spoke to him personally. Neither were Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Job or Melchizedek, all of whom benefited from direct, personal relationships with God. Many of the words God spoke to these men were later preserved for us by Moses.

Many Times and in Many Ways

From the time of Moses on, God’s emphasis was on speaking not just to individuals but to a chosen nation, through whom he intended to bless the entire world and reveal himself to them. The law he gave to Moses was the first step in that process. God always intended the wisdom of his people and the righteousness of their laws to be a witness to the nations that God was real, present in the world and wanted to relate to mankind. This is precisely what happened. God spoke to the nations by blessing Israel when they obeyed him, and he spoke to the nations by punishing Israel when they disobeyed him.

But God didn’t leave it at that. He continued to speak through his prophets, both to Israel and to the nations directly. Nahum’s prophecy, for example, is all about Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. It says comparatively little about Israel, but lots about the character of God and his anger with the Assyrians. “Sundry times and divers manners” indeed.

A Witness in the World

Finally, a generation of Jews two thousand years ago experienced God in the person of his Son. A Bible is a wonderful gift, but imagine hearing Jesus speak, watching him interact with others, or witnessing a healing. Tens of thousands did, and for more than three years. No more articulate presentation of the heart of the Creator and his love for mankind has ever existed than God manifest in the flesh, Jesus Christ.

After his resurrection, witnessed by hundreds, and his ascension, the apostles of Jesus Christ wrote numerous letters and testified to what they had witnessed all across Asia and the Middle East. The things they wrote were just as much “scripture” as the Law, Psalms and Prophets, and they told us so. God was speaking through them just as he had always spoken.

In short, God has not only spoken about himself; he has spoken repeatedly. He has never stopped speaking. He has never left himself without a witness in the world.

The question is not really how did people know about God before the Bible? The question is how did they not know?


  1. Fine, but fairness demands that all knowledge is investigated with regard to authenticity, veracity, applicability, and reliability. E.g. if nowadays someone were to make the claim that God spoke to them directly what do you think would happen with that person?

    We know that many Catholic saints made that claim and there are many (then and now) who would question their mental and emotional stability. Also, how would you know in that case that it is really God who is talking to you? This is not necessarily a good or desireable situation since it would totally complicate one's life. At the current time this is exactly what is happening to someone I know (Christ appearing and talking to them directly) and it is causing some very unfortunate consequences for them and grief for their extended family and some really undesireable life changes. So one must be careful with regard to mixing and introducing the spiritual dimension with the material one.

    Therefore, how then does the spiritual dimension communicate with the material one without really causing problematic situations? The acid test ultimately is in what is being communicated and in which way that happens in that it should have a benign outcome. This is not an easy thing to establish, especially nowadays where it would raise immediate questions, and we do not know how it was established then in historical times.

    1. Well, we do know how it was established, at least in Israel. There were several documented tests for prophets to see if God had really spoken through them. One such test was that they speak consistently with existing revelation (Isaiah 8:20). If a self-proclaimed prophet contradicted Moses, he was not to be believed.

      Israelites generally gave their known prophets some benefit of the doubt, but ultimately the second test of a prophet was whether what he said came to pass (Jer. 28:9). If it did not, he was not a prophet.

      New Testament prophets were tested by their confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2), and there were other things the people of God were to look out for.

      I do agree that people who have powerful personal experiences of God are generally not believed. For that reason alone, it's a very good thing we have scripture to stand on.

  2. What I should have mentioned is that the validity of a personal revelation not exclusively depends on how that takes place but much more importantly on the content of the message being conveyed. That's usually how you can figure out if it's the real thing or not. The person I mentioned with the convincing visions (to that person) definitely was given a wrong and somewhat underhanded message disguised as encouraging charity.