NCW 16, February 1995
Q. In the New Testament we find records of things said by Christ and others which the writers could not possibly have heard or got to know about, such as Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane. How do you explain this?
It is argued by those who believe the Bible to be verbally infallible that the Gethsemane prayer, for example, was revealed to the apostle John by revelation after the event. This is a possible explanation but in my opinion unlikely.
We know the disciples were asleep whilst Jesus prayed but what we don't know is how much of the prayer they heard, or didn't hear. Let us remember these facts: (1) Jesus was only a "stone's throw away" from the disciples; (2) The silence of the night was around them; and (3) it is more than likely that Jesus prayed aloud because people did everything aloud in those days. In my opinion, the disciples heard the opening words of the prayer before they went to sleep. And, moreover, they record those opening words as though they were the whole.
Sit down and read Jesus' High Priestly Prayer aloud for yourself and time how long it takes you (John 17:1-26; Luke 22:39-46). I would estimate that this is a three minute prayer. I very much doubt that the disciples fell asleep instantly and that Jesus returned to them three minutes later. What is more probable is that this prayer was the introduction to a much longer prayer. The Comforter brought the part which they had heard back to remembrance after He had ascended, this being a promise made to them. Thus the part of the High Priestly Prayer we have recorded is that which the disciples could remember. It must be the part they heard whilst they were fully awake. No doubt providence intended that we hear no more, and no doubt the same providence had intended that they fall asleep too. This is admittedly speculation but seems to be supported by other evidence.
We find much the same thing in Acts 24. In Paul's trial before Felix, the Jews sent for a professional orator called Tertullos for the prosecution. The speech recorded by Luke is only 84 words long in the original Greek which is far too short for a professional advocate. Of these 84 words 40 are taken up with preliminary compliments, so what we have here is not a précis or a summary of the speech. No advocate uses 50% of a professional speech on compliments to the bench! (Acts 24:2-8, NIV). Luke is an excellent narrator but is a poor reporter. He starts off by trying to memorise, or write down, the whole of Tertullos's speech verbatim. To begin with he is successful. The style of Tertullos is typical of a practicing rhetor. But Luke soon gives up. Because he is no reporter what follows is a ludicrously inadequate abstract. If Tertullos had spoken the way Luke records him, it would have spelled professional ruin for him.
I think this example weakens the case of verbal plenary revelation. We don't have Tertullos' full speech and the Comforter has certainly not brought it back to remembrance! This may, of course, be because it wasn't important enough to be recorded in Holy Scripture and yet the Bible is certainly full of irrelevent, unspiritual sayings which suggests that men have been permitted to record, on occasion, what seemed important to them at the time but which were not inspired. I am thinking here of some of the "deeds" of the Israelite warrior-heroes.
In making these observations I am not discounting the possibility of speeches or prayers being revealed by revelation subsequently. Rather, that this scenario is both unlikely and typical of what we find in Scripture. Different reports of the same events are common in the New Testament (such as Paul's encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus) suggesting that, as New Covenant Christian have always maintained, that some parts of the Bible are more inspired than others. It is the product of man in partnership with God. It is not, therefore, the final revelation of God, but a human expression of it. The final revelation is the indwelling Christ in a human soul.
The Bible still remains as God's Revelation to man in its most pure and available form. Through it, millions have come to receive Christ as Saviour and experience the power of the indwelling Christ. It may not be infallible but it is good enough.
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