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God Speaks in Various Ways
It is important to lay aside ideas of how God ought to have worked, and go to the Bible to draw the information. We will examine the question "How did biblical writers get the information they conveyed in their writings?" The answer is from many diverse sources.
Visions and Dreams
In Numbers 12:6 God promises to speak to His people through visions and dreams to prophets. After receiving the message by vision, the prophet had to express the ideas as best they could using language they were familiar with. Notice how John attempts to describe the creatures portrayed under the fifth trumpet: "The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women's hair, and their teeth were like lion's teeth" (Revelation 9:7-8, emphasis added).
God meets people and prophets where they are in their culture, and uses images they are familiar with. For example, Nebuchadnezzar sees the nations as part of an image of a man resembling precious metals. Daniel sees the same nations as beasts of prey (Daniel 2 compared with Daniel 7). Pharaoh sees the Nile river, cows and stalks (Genesis 41:1-5).
God Dictates the Words
At times prophets such as Jeremiah, were to speak the words that God put into their mouths (Jeremiah 1:9, 2:1). At other times God dictated words for the prophet to write (Jeremiah 36:1-4, 32).
Through the Natural Senses as Guided by the Holy Spirit
In one of his epistles, John tells us how he gained the knowledge he is sharing with us. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1, emphasis added).
Here John tells us he did not get his message or revelation by a vision or dream, but through personal contact with Christ. What he had seen, heard and touched is the source of his message. Yet in receiving the message and recording it he is still guided by the Holy Spirit.
By Studying the Writings of Others
Perhaps the clearest statement made on this point is by Luke in his gospel introduction. "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4, emphasis added).
Here Luke tells how he studied the account written up by eyewitnesses to the life of Christ and put it down in an orderly manner. Luke is sometimes referred to as "The Divine Historian." It is doubtful if he ever had a vision or dream. Scholars often refer to Matthew, Mark and Luke as the Synoptic gospels because much of each gospel has parallels in the other gospels.13 Only John's gospel stands out because of it's original material.14 So it would seem that consulting the writings of others is part of how we received the story of Jesus. Scholars have varying ideas of who was the original source for so much of Matthew, and Luke's gospels. Some say they all had access to a source they call the "Q document." Others say that Mark's gospel15 was the original source for the others. Whatever the truth, it is clear that there has been a significant amount of borrowing done by some of the writers of the gospels.
Borrowing by Bible Writers
Of the New Testament writers only Paul and John are known to have had visions. But even Paul still felt the need to refer to the writings of others (2 Timothy 4:13). And it is worth noting that some of the studying and borrowing by biblical writers was from the writings of secular writers. Paul's quotations from pagan scholars are well known. A few examples are: Epimenides is quoted in Acts 17:28, "For in him we live and move and have our being."16 Aratus is quoted when Paul states in Acts 17:28, "For we are also his offspring"17 The Greek poet Menander is quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Evil communications corrupt good manners." On this occasion Paul gives no indication that this is a quote.18
Even some of the statements made by Christ have a familiar sound to some statements previously made by Jewish rabbis. For example, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof."19 This sounds much like the golden rule found in Matthew 7:12 yet it was said by Hillel a famous Jewish teacher long before Jesus said it.20 Ellen White's comments on this point are also quite significant: "Some of the truths that Christ spoke were familiar to the people. They had heard them from the lips of priests and rulers, and from men of thought; but for all that, they were distinctively the thoughts of Christ. He had given them to men in trust, to be communicated to the world. . . . The work of Christ was to take the truth of which the people were in want, separate it from error, and present it free from the superstitions of the world, that the people might accept it on its own intrinsic and eternal merit."21
One of the puzzles of the New Testament is that it, at times, quotes the Pseudepigrapha with some measure of authority and even as information coming from Scripture. The Pseudepigrapha is a collection of Jewish writings dating from the first and second centuries BC. The name is given to this collection because the names claimed for the authors are not genuine. They sought to have their ideas accepted by taking the names of famous ancient personalities such as Esdras (Ezra), Enoch and Solomon. It is possible that some of the details given in these books could have originated from ancient traditions.
Anne Punton summarises the situation in this way: "Paul referred to a verse about the heart of man being unable to conceive what God has planned for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9), might be from a composition entitled the Apocalypse of Elijah. . . . Further allusions to matters not known from other Scriptures are how the famine in Elijah's day lasted for three and a half years; (James 5:17) the mysterious role of the angels in the giving of the Law; (Galatians 3:19) and the spiritual rock which accompanied the Children of Israel in the wilderness; (1 Corinthians 10:4) Jewish tradition claims that the rock struck by Moses followed them thereafter and provided water for as long as they needed it. We learn the names of the Egyptian magicians, Jannes and Jambres, who opposed Moses; (2 Timothy 3:8) the way in which some of the Old Testament martyrs died; (Hebrews 11:37) and how Lot deplored the evil of the people amongst whom he lived (2 Peter 2:7).
Jude is very interesting in this respect. When he tells us about a controversy between the archangel Michael and Satan over Moses' body, he is probably quoting from a work called The Assumption of Moses. When he compares the false teachers of his day to 'shooting stars bound for an eternity of black darkness', he had the Book of Enoch in mind. There, stars stand for angels, in this case fallen angels. He then mentions a prophecy about the end of the world and coming judgment which was attributed to Enoch, the seventh patriarch from Adam."22
As Punton has noted, Jude, when describing the coming of Christ, in verses 14-15, appears to take his description straight out of 1 Enoch 1:9—the description appears word for word. It has long puzzled scholars how Jude can use the words of 1 Enoch written about 100 B C and ascribe them to Enoch the seventh from Adam.23 Even John the Revelator, when describing his visions, seems to borrow imagery from 1 Enoch.24 It is unlikely he had a copy of the book with him on Patmos, but it could be that when he tried to describe what he saw, the images of 1 Enoch were etched into his mind and are used either consciously or unconsciously. It is estimated that he used more than 50 allusions to 1 Enoch.25
How much of the Bible would we abandon if we deleted all the allusions to pagan literature? Gerald Wheeler gives us some indication: "Figures of speech in the Song of Solomon show similarities to the
religious literature of ancient Sumer, a civilization in existence three thousand years before Christ. . . . Shall we abandon the Book of Proverbs because in places it follows the literary pattern of Egyptian and other ancient near eastern wisdom tradition, on occasion almost word for word? Must we cut the Psalter out of our Bibles because many of the psalms draw from imagery also used in Canaanite Baal hymns?26
Many more examples could be given, in Ecclesiastes 12:9, the writer seems to suggest a search to find many proverbs to use in his writings.
M. E. Boring summarises the sources of content of prophetic messengers with the following observations: "The prophet presents all that he utters as a prophet as the immediately inspired present address of the deity to his community. This message may well include material taken from tradition and the prophet's own reflection, consciously or unconsciously, with or without re-interpretation, but it is not presented as material which a past authority once said, but as what the deity now says. The same material may be presented by the non-inspired teacher or preacher, but with the formal and functional difference that this claim to immediate inspiration is not made."27
God uses many diverse ways to convey His revelations to His prophets. Sometimes it is by vision—a supernatural event. Often it is as the prophet consults the works of others, or in observing events. It seems there is an economy of miracles at work in the way God reveals His will. He never does supernaturally what is possible by natural means. Regardless of the methods used, God still oversees the end product to make sure it conveys in a reliable manner the message He wishes His people to receive.
13 It is estimated that more than 90% of the Gospel of Mark is found in Matthew and Luke. The writers of Kings and Chronicles also use materials from royal archives, prophetic records, and genealogical lists. [back]
14 An excellent work showing the importance of this fact is found in Luke a Plagiarist? By George Rice, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1983). [back]
15 It is frequently contended that Mark received his material from Peter. [back]
16 See 6SDABC, p. 354. [back]
17 Ibid., p.354. [back]
18 Ibid., p 808. [back]
19 See 5SDABC, p. 356. [back]
20 For more examples see Tim Crosby, "Does inspired mean original?" Ministry, February, 1986, pp. 4-7. [back]
21 Ellen White, Review and Herald, January 7 1890, reprinted Review and Herald, June 2, 1983, p. 7. [back]
22 Anne Punton, The World Jesus Knew, (London, England: Monarch Books, 2000). p. 218. [back]
23 See 7SDABC, p.708. [back]
24 See 5SDABC, p. 88 which states that there is general agreement that 1 Enoch was in circulation by at least the middle of the 1st century B.C. [back]
25 For more details see the articles on 1 Enoch by J. H. Charlesworth in New Testament Studies, Vol. 25, pp. 315-369. Also The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament In English, Vol. 2, Edited in conjunction with many scholars by R. H. Charles, DD., (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1913), p. 189. [back]
26 Gerald Wheeler, "God speaks with a human accent," Adventist Review, July 14, 1983. p. 5. [back]
27 M. E. Boring, What Are We Looking For? Toward a Definition of the Term Christian Prophet, S.B.L. Seminar Papers, Missoula, 1973, p. 149, as quoted in Forbes, p. 273. [back].