Most people approach history textbooks somewhat uncritically, accepting what
they read as accurate and authoritative. And why not? History books place no moral demands on us (not even to learn from history!).
However, when a book makes absolute moral and theological assertions (as the Bible does), people become uncomfortable. Faced with demand
for an ethical commitment (and having a natural aversion to authority), some people feign intellectual objections, claiming alleged
contradictions in the Bible, and generally questioning its reliability. Consciously or unconsciously the reasoning is: if the Bible
can be discredited, or at least relegated to the realm of mythology, its demands will have been trivialized. Thus we have the modern
battle over the reliability of the Bible. This brief paper is intended to inform and encourage the reader as to the general integrity
and reliability of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
Let me preface this paper with a summons to intellectual integrity in the form of
a question. If it can be demonstrated that sufficient evidence exists (i.e., textual, historical, archaeological) to authenticate the
Bible as a thoroughly reliable historical document, will you then accept its ethical and moral imperatives? If not, then don't trouble
yourself about reading this paper. Yours isn't an intellectual problem, but rather a volitional problem - a matter of the will. If,
however, you are willing to follow the truth, no matter where it leads, then by all mean, read on.
I. The Bible is a Unique Book
A. The Bible is unique in its continuity
forty different people on their religious views: people from
every socio-economic background ...
(ranging from extreme poverty to immense wealth)
in nearly every walk of life
(kings and paupers, statesmen and fishermen, poets and physicians)
on three separate continents
(Asia, Africa, and Europe)
in three different languages
(Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic)
taking several forms ...
(poetry, history, civil and criminal law, ethics, didactic,
parable, biography, prophecy, personal correspondence ...)
And spanning a period of nearly 1,500 years!
And if you asked them to put their observations, thoughts and feelings about God and
about ultimate reality into writing what kind of book do you suppose you'd end up with? Would they all agree? Hardly. You'd probably
wind up with a mishmash. Well, the Biblical writers represent exactly this societal, linguistic, cultural and geographic diversity, and
yet there is remarkable harmony and both thematic and statistical consistency throughout the book! At the very least, it must be admitted
that the Bible is a unique book.
B. The Bible is unique in its survival
The Bible, compared with other ancient writings, has more manuscript
evidence than any 10 pieces of classical literature combined ...
With regard to the New Testament
books, John Warwick Montgomery stated:
"... to be skeptical
of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow
all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents
of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically
as the New Testament." 1
Bernard Ramm speaks of the accuracy
and number of Biblical manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures:
"Jews preserved it as
no other manuscript has ever been preserved. With their massora
they kept tabs on every letter, syllable, word and paragraph.
They had special classes of men within their culture whose sole
duty was to preserve and transmit these documents with practically
perfect fidelity ... who ever counted the letters, syllables
and words of Plato or Aristotle? Cicero or Seneca?"
II. We Have an Authentic, Reliable Biblical Text
A. By means of bibliographical and internal criteria
The historical reliability of
the Bible should be tested by the same criteria that all historical
documents are tested. It breaks down to these three factors:
- The number of existing manuscripts
- The dating of the manuscripts
- The proportion of variant
1. The number of existing
There are more than 5,300 known
Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, over 10,000 in Latin
and over 9,300 other early versions
totaling 24,000+ manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament
in existence today, ranking it first in manuscript evidence.
Second place goes to The Iliad, by Homer ... with 643 surviving manuscripts.
2. The dating of the manuscripts
The New Testament autographs date to between 40-100 A.D. Until 1995, the earliest extant manuscripts
dated to the fourth century (a 250-300 year difference). Norman Geisler states that the average gap
between an original composition and the earliest available copy is over 1,000 years for other works of
-- Dr. Carsten Thiede/1st century papyrus fragments of Matthew)
The late Sir Frederick Kenyon,
orientalist, director and principal librarian of the British
"This may sound a considerable
interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the
great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We
believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the
seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial
manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1,400
years after the poet's death." 3
Kenyon, in The
Bible and Archaeology continues:
"The interval then between
the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence
becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation
for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially
as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity
and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament
may be regarded as finally established." 4
Among ancient Greek/Latin literature,
The Iliad ranks next to the New Testament in possessing the
greatest amount of manuscript testimony.
So let's compare them:
3. Variant readings
Through the proper
application of textual criticism, comparing all the available
manuscripts with one another, we are able to confidently reconstruct
the original reading. Let's briefly compare the numbers on variant
readings. The New Testament contains approximately 20,000 lines,
of which 40 lines are in question. This equals .5% (one half
of one percent).
The Iliad contains approximately 15,600 lines, of which 764
lines are in question. This equals five percent. That's ten times more variants than the New Testament in a
document which is only three-quarters its length. The sheer number of extant NT manuscripts we possess narrows
tremendously the margin of doubt on the correct reading of the original documents (known as autographs).
Of the 0.5% of the New Testament variant readings, only one
eighth of those amount to anything more than a stylistic difference
An example of a fairly typical variant reading:
is the Savior of the whole worl.
||Christ Jesus is the Savior
of the whole world.
||Jesus Christ s the Savior
of the whold world.
||Jesus Christ is th Savior
of the whle world.
||Jesus Christ is the Savor
of the whole wrld.
Many of these variants involve nothing more than a missing letter in
a word, a misspelling, or a reversal of the order of two words (as seen above in #2). Some may involve the absence of
a word; but of all the variants in the NT, it should be noted that only about 50 have any real significance, and that
not one essential point of Christian doctrine rests upon a disputed reading. For more than 99% of them, we have been
able to reconstruct the biblical text with tremendous certainty.
B. The archaeological/external
1. Evidence from archaeology
The Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered in 1947, included an ancient copy of the
scroll of Isaiah. This scroll, dating to approximately 100 B.C. was found to be identical to the Modern Hebrew Bible in
over ninety five percent of the text. The remaining five percent consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen or
variations in spelling.
Prior to that discovery, the earliest manuscript of Isaiah was the
Masoretic Text, dating to 900 A.D. Realize, then, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls moved the dating back more than
a thousand years! And that without any appreciable change in the text.
Nelson Glueck, renowned Jewish
"It may be stated categorically
that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical
William F. Albright, one of the
world's most renowned archaeologists, stated:
"There can be no doubt
that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of
Old Testament tradition." 6
And again ...
"The excessive skepticism
shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phrases of which
still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited.
Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable
details, and has brought increased recognition to the value
of the Bible as a source of history." 7
The late Millar Burrows, renowned
Professor of Archaeology at Yale University, exposed the cause
of persistent unbelief:
"The excessive skepticism
of many liberal theologians stems not from a careful evaluation
of the available data, but from an enormous predisposition against
the supernatural." 8
2. Evidence from early Christian
J. Harold Greenlee, Professor
of New Testament Greek at Oral Roberts University, wrote that
the quotations of the Scripture in the works of the early Christian
"... are so extensive
that the New Testament could virtually be reconstructed from
them without the use of New Testament manuscripts."
This was later confirmed by Sir David Dalyrimple. All but eleven verses
of the New Testament are found in the works of second and third century writers. In addition to the many thousands of NT
manuscripts, there are over 86,000 quotations of the NT in the early church fathers, and quotations in thousands of early
lectionaries (worship books).
3. Evidence from extra-Biblical
(Ecclesiastical History, III. 39) referring to Mark
(c. 130 AD) refers to Matthew's gospel
(c. 180 AD) refers to the four gospels and Matthew
II. We Have an Authentic, Reliable Biblical Text
Let us state again that, in spite of having come under attack a century and
a half ago as an unreliable historical record, over the past fifty to seventy five years, the biblical narrative has been
consistently corroborated by archaeological discoveries (remember, too, that a century and a half ago the field of archaeology
had scarcely emerged).
Archaeologist Joseph Free has said, "Archaeology has confirmed countless
passages which had been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contrary to known facts." 10
One hundred fifty years
to two hundred years ago it became academically fashionable to say
that Moses could not have authored the five books of the Torah, as
claimed, because it was thought that legal codes of that order simply
didn't exist. These arguments persisted by some even into the mid-20th
century. On that logic they posited that several different individuals,
living many centuries later, wrote the Torah and ascribed it to Moses.
Archaeology proved this "Documentary Hypothesis" wrong through the
more recent discoveries of numerous legal codes in some cases predating
even the Patriarchal period, such as the Hammurabi Code (c. 1700 B.C.),
the Lipit-Ishtar Code (c. 1860 B.C.) and the Laws of Eshunna (c. 1950
Prior to 1906 critics of biblical historicity argued that the Bible's
descriptions of the Hittite Empire were later insertions, since they were certain the Hittite Empire didn't exist,
owing to lack of physical evidence for it. But in 1906 archaeologists unearthed the Hittite capital and in the years
following excavated what is now known to have been a massive and very prominent Hittite civilization.
More recently, liberal scholars, intent on maintaining their criticism of the
Bible, argued that the Gospel of John could not have been written by John, but must have come much later, owing to factors such
The use of imagery they presupposed to be of later Gnostic influence (i.e., terms such as "sons of light" and "sons of darkness").
Allegedly inaccurate historical details (such as a 5th portico at the pool of Bethesda [cf. John 5:2] whereas every Judean pool excavated had just four porticoes).
Discoveries, however, of texts paralleling and even pre-dating the NT
manuscripts (chiefly at Qumran) evidenced the very same apocalyptic terminology in contemporary Jewish writings. And
approximately eight years ago archaeologists discovered underneath what they had previously thought was the earliest level
at the site of Bethesda an older mikveh (pool) which had a fifth portico transecting it! One would hope that at some point
the critics would concede the historical reliability of the biblical narrative.
This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of sources. In fact,
it's just "the tip of the iceberg". But as you can see, there really is a remarkable body of evidence supporting the reliability
of the Bible as we have it in English today. I hope this will give the reader a sense of confidence that the Bible, as it has
come down to us, is an altogether historically reliable record. This is critical, because if it were unreliable in that matter,
we certainly could take the next step and consider its theological reliability. However, as we warned at the outset, the Bible
does contains moral imperatives. Thus it seems the real question now is not whether the Bible is trustworthy, but whether you
are willing to read it, consider its contents and claims, and wrestle with its moral implications. You could choose to look the
other way and hope later to plead ignorance. Instead, I recommend you take the courageous approach of reading the Scriptures in
the pursuit of truth.
I am indebted to Josh McDowell's book, Evidence that Demands a
Verdict and to www.gospeloutreach.net and Rolaant McKenzie for much of the
material in this study.
Quotations Taken From:
Evidence that Demands a Verdict:
historical evidences for the Christian faith
Compiled by Josh McDowell, 1972, 1979 Here's Life Publishers, Inc.
P.O. Box 1576, San Bernadino, CA 92402, fifteenth printing
Why the Bible is the Word of God: historical evidence for the Bible
By Matt Perman (www.gospeloutreach.net/bible3.html)
- Montgomery, John W. History
Intervarsity Press Downers Grove, IL, 1971, p. 29.
- Ramm, Bernard. Can I Trust
My Old Testament?
The Kings Business, Feb., 1949 pp. 230, 231.
- Kenyon, Frederick G. Handbook
to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.
MacMillan and Co., London, 1901, p. 4.
- Kenyon, Frederick G. The Bible
Harper & Row, New York, 1940, p. 288.
- Glueck, Nelson. Rivers in
the Desert: History of Negev.
Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1969, p. 176.
- Albright, William Foxwell. Archaeology
and the Religions of Israel.
Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1956, p. 176.
- Albright, William Foxwell. The
Archaeology of Palestine.
Pelican Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1960, p. 127,
- Burrows, Millar. What Mean
Meridian Books, New York, NY, 1956, p. 176.
- Greenlee, J. Harold. Introduction
to New Testament Textual Criticism.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1964, p. 54.
- Free, Joseph. Archaeology and Bible History.
Scripture Press, Wheaton, IL, 1969, pg. 1