Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is the Bible Historically Reliable?

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 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 Verdict and More Than a Carpenter,both by Josh McDowell; and Facing the Muslim Challenge, by John Gilchrist.


  1. I might just have to check out the writings of those men, Sarah. I find myself constantly debating with other non-Christian friends and acquaintances concerning the truth and fact of God's Holy Word, and it is often hard to establish a source from which I may prove that the Bible is in fact a real, historic piece of literature. It is so sad that so many people look at the Bible as simply a "good book," or a collection of stories for anyone who might be interested in old literature. Sometimes I find myself disgusted that I am unable to properly show others how the Bible is fact, not fiction. It has always been an area I have yearned to study upon and improve myself in. Good blog! :)

    ~Christina Seifert

  2. Check them out, Christina! The books I referenced at the end of the post are great resources, too. There is so much evidence for the historical authenticity of scripture it's overwhelming--and confidence-inspiring! Good luck on your quest to integrate apologetics into your evangelism!

  3. Hey Sarah, I would like to continue our conversation on this thread because I was heading this direction anyway. So far, I we have been debating the Bible's logic and you have apologized cleverly. However, I'm afraid we could end up talking in circles on that subject. This leads me to some more fundamental questions of theology.

    Considering how far science has come in two-thousand years, why would you believe in a God? There is no evidence to support miracles. There is no evidence of a human being rising from the dead after 3 days. There is no evidence of an afterlife. There is no evidence of a holy spirit. Why do you believe these things exist? Do you believe in evolution or do you believe in Adam and Eve? You can't believe in both. Either you believe that the Bible is literal or you believe that it is symbolic. While there is no evidence for creation or any of the miracles in the Bible, evidence to support evolution is piling up. Why should anyone believe the Bible is historically reliable based on the number of copies that were made? Should we believe that Islam is the right religion because of its large number of believers? Just because something is popular at one time or another doesn't automatically prove that it is right or true. Should we believe the reports of "eyewitnesses" when they were followers of Jesus? What if Jim Jones' followers had claimed that he had rose from the dead and floated up to heaven? You wouldn't think twice, you would just call them crazy. Why can't we treat the Bible as a collection of books that were written by many different men over hundreds of years? Then we can throw out the parts that don't make sense, acknowledge the parts that do, and move forward with society.

    In regards to the happiness of Christians, what makes you entertain the idea that you could be happier by believing in a supernatural being? That is like telling someone that their car is nice, but they would be much happier if they imagined that they had a Ferrari. The quote from C.S. Lewis is subjective statement. Just because something feels good to you, doesn't mean it is true for everybody. It definitely doesn't mean that it is a fact. Why can't we objectively analyze the Bible and figure out why some of the teachings make us feel good to follow and forget about the rest? Why does there have to be a supernatural being behind it?

  4. We could end up talking in circles? Not if one of us is right! If one of us is correct then our argument will break out of the circle. Don’t let me have the last word, Matt! I’m curious about your responses to my last arguments.

    Again, I’m not willing to solely rely on science, and I think if you evaluate your life you will see that you do not rely only on science, but on reason also. Do you wait for empirical evidence before you decide to love someone, apply for a job, or invest in a friend? I think that science is a beneficial tool in helping us to understand God’s world, but I also think reason is an important guide on our quest for truth. Without reason we can't make sense of science.

    Since you’re a science guy, I’m interested to hear what you think about irreducible complexity and the way it points to a creator.

    There are lots of Christians who believe that God created the earth and then facilitated the process of evolution. Honestly, I don’t think it’s an integral issue. The point is that God created the earth, he is a God of love, and he makes a way for us to conquer sin, be his friend and live with him forever.

    The more manuscripts we have for a work of antiquity, the more we can assess the accuracy of the book we have today. Just like the more archaeological evidence we have for an historical time period, the more thoroughly we can understand that time in history. If we can prove the accuracy of the Bible, then its content suddenly becomes more valid and worth investigating.

    There were plenty of eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry who hated him and wanted to give him about as much credibility as a Jim Jones. It’s interesting, though, that these hostile eyewitnesses didn’t object to the content of the Gospels. It’s also interesting that the Gospel authors knew the hostile eyewitnesses were looking for ways to destroy them, but they unabashedly circulated their Gospel accounts. The only way to explain the silence of Christianity’s critics to the New Testament books is that the books were actually an accurate record of events.

    Christianity is not about imagining something better, but about receiving something better. We can’t know how good the gift is, however, until we actually receive it and experience it. The quote about C.S. Lewis is meant to illustrate the point that even in our fallen state, we experience pleasure. This pleasure is pale, however, compared to the pleasure that we experience we stop malfunctioning as human beings and begin to function and flourish the way God intended when he created us.

  5. Hey Sarah, I love this post! Believers need to openly challenge the debates and doubts that go through our own minds openly(and every human being challenges their own belief system in their own mind, regardless of what they may state), and that can only come by actively searching for truth.

    Obviously Scripture is Truth, and should be the filter we have in place with which we put ALL information through. But I am amazed that God gave us a physical world that is observable, vast, and exciting, and points to one origin. Like you said, it's not a salvation issue, but for us who believe in the accuracy of Genesis, we have loads and loads of evidence piling up, not toward evolution, but toward creation, and a young earth(examples such as the rate that helium escapes from rocks. If one sees the validity of a young earth, they are an instant theist, and the Old Testament is the only written account of this young earth. One great source I've found is Ken Ham. I first heard of him in SD. He has an organization called Answers in Genesis. He actually has a creation museum full of empirical data just an hour out of Louisville. Hey, if you decide to go, I know some family that lives in the area!

    And another source for the historicity of Christ is Gary Habermas. He has a great book I own, called The Historical Jesus. It's ingenius, because he openly uses extrabiblical sources, from historians and other unbelievers who attest to not just Jesus' life, but His miracles as well. I can't think of any writings that make the case of any other belief solid, without being brought into it already. Dr. Habermas has done a lot of research on the manuscripts as well, and has a lot of invaluable information.

    Anyway, hope all is doing well. This blog is at least a confidence-inducer for a few people I know(including myself), and I'm sure the influence your thought bubbles exude reaches farther than you know. :)

  6. Hey Tommy! Thanks for your input. I've definitely heard about he Habernas' stuff but haven't read any of it. Thanks for the recommendation, I'll have to check him out one of these days.

    Hope all is well in good ol' Lowville! :)