By Steve DuPlessie | April 30, 2018
So right up front I want to say that despite the questions from your friends, in spite of the History Channel specials that suggest all sorts of alternative theories, the reliability of the bible is not a hard debate to win. The fact is that the bible is by far the most reliable ancient document in the world.
Ok, so to be clear, when we say “the bible,” what we really mean is a book that is actually a mini library, a collection of books, written over a period of 1,500 years, by more than forty different authors, who wrote to very different audiences and cultures on three different continents, in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. All with one single grand unifying theme: God’s revelation of his love-driven plan to redeem and have a relationship with people like us.
Most people don’t know this. When they say they don’t believe “the bible,” they think they’re rejecting an old book written by one person at one point in history.
Now that would be true for The Book of Mormon, or the Koran (Qur’an,) and the ancient Bhagavad Gita. One guy, Joseph Smith, dictated The Book of Mormon to a groups of scribes in 1830. An Arab trade merchant, Muhammad, wrote the Koran in the years following AD609. The Hindu sage Vyasa composed the 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita, divided into 18 chapters, sometime between 500 and 200BC.
The Bible is different…
But the Bible is different. It’s actually a collection, a compilation, of 66 different books of history and poetry, wisdom and theology, prophecy, biography and advice letters, plus a unique literary form called Apocalyptic. So skeptics don’t get to dismiss the Bible in one fell swoop. They have to examine and dismiss sixty-six different books written by different people to very different audiences at different times. And believers don’t have to defend all 66 books. What I do is defend 27 of them. I focus on the reliability of the New Testament (NT). For two reasons…
First, I think the biggest concern that you should have with a skeptic is to show them evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Don’t get sucked into a discussion of the worldwide flood or people living in whales. There are good answers to those questions, but I suggest you not waste your time on that. Pick your battles.
Second, I argue for the reliability of just the NT because that automatically proves the general reliability of the Old Testament (OT). The NT includes Jesus’ own affirmation of the OT. Jesus teaches the OT is the word of God; so if the NT is reliable, we can also trust the OT.
Let’s look at the evidence…
So let’s look at evidence for the reliability of the NT. Judging the reliability of an ancient document begins with asking how many copies of the document are still available for us to examine. Original manuscripts of ancient documents don’t exist. So copies are as good as it gets. Fortunately for us, copies are enough to prove what the original text actually said.
This process is called Textual Criticism: reconstructing the original from what we have available in the copies of that original. The more copies you have, the easier it is to sort through errors made by the scribes who hand-wrote the copies so you can determine the original text. Here’s an example in English of how you can reconstruct an original text from four different, hypothetical copies of Philippians 4:13…
1. I can do all t#ings through Christ who strengthens me.
2. I can do all th#ngs through Christ who strengthens me.
3. I can do all thi#gs through Christ who strengthens me.
4. I can do all thin#s through Christ who strengthens me.
[Example from Geisler, N. L & Turek, F., I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist
(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 228]
So it’s pretty easy to tell that the original text said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This is how scholars, using the principles of textual criticism, can reconstruct an original manuscript from its copies. And you can see that the more copies you have, the easier it is, and the more certainty you can have that the reconstruction of thee text is accurate.
So, the question is, how many copies of the NT do we have to work with? Ok, so there are more than … 6,000 manuscripts in existence today in Greek, the original language of the NT. Nearly 600 of those copies were made in the first thousand years of the originals. The oldest Greek manuscript of the NT, a fragment of verses from John’s Gospel, chapter 18, dates back to AD130, the early second century, just about 40 years after the original was written by John.
How does the Bible compare to…
Ok, but how does that compare to other ancient writings that are known and accepted by everyone as authentic? Well, there are fewer than 2,000 copies of Homer’s epics, Illiad and Odyssey that you had to read in HS world lit class. Written about 850BC, the oldest manuscript of Homer’s work is about 350 years removed from the original – not a few decades.
It’s that way with all the ancient texts: For Ceasar’s Gallic War, composed between 58 and 50BC, there are only 9 good copies, and the oldest is 900 years after Caesar’s day. The Roman historian Tacitus – who gives us so much of what we know today about ancient Rome – his 14 volume set called Histories, written about AD100, has only four-and-a-half surviving copies, and those date from about AD900 – 800 years after they were written.
British scholar, FF Bruce, gives us tons of other examples in his study called The NT Documents: Are they reliable? And in every case, there are more manuscript copies and fragments of the NT available than any other ancient written document. And the NT copies are all closer to the original document than any of the other texts everyone accepts as reliable today.
Let me give you another example, a little bit closer to our time, to make the point. Did you have to read some Shakespeare in High School English lit class or maybe in college? Sure. The Bard of Avon wrote in a short, 20-year period from 1591-1611, just a few years before the Pilgrims arrived down the road here in Plymouth. Among other things, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, from Henry VI to The Tempest.
Now compare that to the NT. 27 books. By 8 different authors including a historian, a physician, a Jewish Pharisee and a Jewish rabbi, some missionaries, a few fishermen, and a Roman-collaborating-tax collector. 27 different books of varying length written over a period of 46 years, from AD50 to AD96.
Here scholar John Lea gives us the report of his analysis of Shakespeare’s 37 plays with the 27 books of the NT. He writes, “With no more than twenty exceptions total, the text of every one of the 7,957 verses in the Greek New Testament has been settled by general consent of scholars, so that any dispute is about the interpretation of the words rather than the actual words themselves. But in every one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven English plays there are about a hundred uncertain readings still in dispute, a large portion of which materially affect the meaning of the passage.”
Using the techniques of Textual Criticism, the many different English translations we have today come from the Greek NT text that scholars, after literally hundreds of years of examination, have agreed is the original text in Greek. And the same strategy applies to translating the OT.
Because we have such a high degree of confidence that we have the correct version of the Greek NT, the only question that remains for us is, Do the original writers tell us the truth? Did the authors of the NT invent their stories? Were they accurate in what they wrote about Jesus and his teaching? How can we know for sure? Just knowing that we have an accurate copy of the NT isn’t enough. It could just be the accurate copy of a lie.
Passing 4 historical tests…
Well, we have good reason to believe the NT authors told us the truth because their writings pass four very important historical tests. First, the NT displays all the hallmarks of eye witness accounts. First for example, the NT eyewitness testimonies includes embarrassing details about its authors. If you are going to make something up, would you make something up that makes you look bad?
Like arguing who is the greatest on the night Jesus is arrested? Like, denying that you even know Jesus? Like still doubting if Jesus rose from the dead after you had seen and touched him? Like admitting that you persecuted followers of Jesus? All that stuff that makes you look pretty bad if you’re just making it all up!
Second, the eyewitness testimonies include the testimonies of women and in the first century women were not considered reliable sources for testimony in court. So if you’re making this all up, would you include a witness that you knew no one would trust?
Third, the NT records events that have the support of multiple independent sources. Remember, the NT is not one book. It is a curated collection of independent sources that often speak to the same thing. The principle here is that the more sources you have recording the same event, the higher the level of certainty that the event happened. While there are some variations, the major themes of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation are consistent throughout. Plus we have many sources like the Jewish historian Josephus and the very well-known classical quotations from Tacitus, Pliny – some written by hostile non-believers – who never-the-less confirm the facts of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And fourth, there were many, many eyewitnesses still alive when these documents were written and circulated, any of whom could say “That’s not what happened!” Made up stories, deliberate fabrications, fake news, gets exposed by people who were there.
Listen, the NT passes every test that historians and scholars, skeptics and critics, can throw at it. I gave you the quick fly-over version. The good news is though I’ve been brief, it’s not from a lack of evidence. There’s a short list of suggested resources on the notes insert in your program if you want to dig deeper or read original scholarship on the question of the reliability of the Bible.
The real Question behind the Question…
But here’s the thing. Most people who question the reliability of the bible … have never actually read the bible, never mind studied it or explored the evidence for the best manuscripts. So their questions, their objections, cover over the question behind the question. It’s not really about trusting the bible at all. The real question behind the question is, “If you could know for sure today that the bible is true, would you believe it?”
If your family-member or friend says Yes, then offer to spend some time together exploring what we talked about today for yourselves. I’m happy to point you to some easy to use tools. I’m pretty confident that if they are sincere in wanting to discover if the bible is reliable, you’ll like where your study together goes.
Because believing the bible is true is just a starting point. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
I like the NLT that says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
2 Peter 1:20, 21 further explains, “…no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
Inspiration simply means that God directed and used each writer – in their time and culture, with their language skills and their education – to write what God wanted us to know about him and his grand unified plan to redeem broken and fallen people like me a you.
It’s the bible that tells us there is one and only one God. It’s the bible that tells us God loves you so much he sent his one and only Son Jesus to die on the cross to pay the total and complete penalty required for your sin so you can be forgiven, redeemed, and adopted into God’s family. It’s the bible that tells us how Jesus rose, alive, after he died, to prove he is God and prove his power over sin and death. It’s the bible that tells us how God will ultimately redeem and remake all of this broken, fallen creation to what he intended it to be in the first place. It’s the bible that tells us that Jesus will return and usher in justice and peace to replace injustice and evil, sin and sickness, and even death itself.
My mom copied an old quote (author unknown) and wrote it inside the cover of my first bible, “This is the Word of God. Read it to be wise, believe it to be saved, and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you. Christ is its grand subject, our good is its design, and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully.” You can believe it…