The Bible is an irrelevant collection of religious propaganda, full of so many errors and deviations from the original text it can't be trusted.
Sound familiar? If you haven't thought it, you've probably heard it. The Bible has been under the scrutiny of laymen, scholars, the religious and irreligious for hundreds of years, and for good reason. It is chuck-full of history, has always been central to Christianity, and makes such bold and penetrating claims that some people hate it, some people swear by it, and some people are radically changed by it. There's got to be something to this book.
As a Christian I believe that you don't have to be a scholar or theologian to be affected by the Bible's message. I've seen firsthand that the Word of God is "living and active...it penetrates even to diving soul and spirit" (Hebrews 4:12). Its message is powerful enough to invade any man's heart, and its truth can be known without the help of scholarship. But scholarship is still important, and the skeptic's objections to the Bible are valid, so let's briefly investigate the evidence for the historical reliability of scripture.
First let's take a look at the quantity and consistency of the biblical manuscript copies we have today:
We have over 5,600 Greek New Testament manuscripts, 10,000 Latin Vulgates (these are Latin translations of the Greek manuscripts) and at least 9,300 other manuscripts, totaling over 24,000 New Testament manuscripts! On top of that, Jews possess ancient Old Testament manuscripts called the Hebrew Massoretic texts that date back at least 1,000 years, and we have the Dead Sea Scrolls which contain portions of the Hebrew Old Testament and date back to the second century before Christ.
That's more source material than scholars have for any other work of antiquity! There are only 643 manuscripts for the work the Iliad, and only 49 manuscripts of Aristotle'sPoetics, and yet they are both considered authoritative and accurate texts among scholars. It only makes sense then, that scholars have evaluated the tens of thousands of biblical manuscripts and confirmed the historical authenticity (also called "historicity") of the Old and New Testaments we have today. In fact, we can use these manuscripts to reconstruct 97-99% of the New Testament we have today!
Usually at this point in a discussion about the historicity of the Bible someone brings up the hundreds of thousands of variants between biblical manuscripts. A variant is a difference in wording between texts, and anytime you have a lot of manuscripts there is an increase in variants. There are a lot of variants between biblical manuscripts, but they don't undermine the reliability of the Bible. Let me break down the different types of variants:
75% are spelling differences.
The use of synonyms across manuscripts accounts for a large chunk of the variants (For example, using "Lord" and "He" interchangeably).
Only about 1% of the variants actually affects the meaning of the text.
We can further examine the credibility of the Bible by looking at the proximity of its authors to the events they recorded. Most of the New Testament authors were eyewitnesses to the events they recorded, and all of the New Testament books were written within the first century after Jesus' death and resurrection. This means that other eyewitnesses of the New Testament accounts were around when the manuscripts began circulating, including hostile eyewitnesses who were enemies of Christianity. It would have been really risky for the New Testament authors to begin circulating lies and distortions with so many other eyewitnesses hanging around!
Not only were the Gospel writers held accountable by eyewitnesses, but they recorded events that cast themselves into a rather unfavorable light--sometimes these guys were a bunch of arrogant, immature, faithless fools! If the Gospel authors were just making up religious propaganda, you would expect them to depict themselves in a more complimentary way.
If you're interesting in finding out more about the historicity of scripture, you may want to investigate the ways in which outside sources like Josephus, Papias the bishop of Hierapolos, and Irenaeus, the student of John’s disciple Polycarp confirm the New Testament accounts.
I think further study will only increase your confidence in the reliability and autheticity of scripture. And as the Bible's reliability unfolds, you may want to consider if, perhaps, Jesus Christ is really who he claimed to be.
More on that later!
I got my facts from Evidence That Demands a Verdictand More Than a Carpenter,both by Josh McDowell; and Facing the Muslim Challenge, by John Gilchrist.