Reliability

One common point of contention regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible concerns its reliability.  In other words, how do we know the books are authoritative and contain what was originally written?  Also, has the Bible’s reliability been confirmed by tests of its historicity?  Consider the following.

How Its Books Were Chosen

Contrary to popular belief, the books included in the Bible were not selected by mysterious religious councils or groups.  Rather, they were included because they were already accepted by people as authoritative.  The following excerpt from an interview with Bruce Metzger, a world-renowned biblical scholar, about the Bible’s authority puts this into perspective.

“…the canon (i.e., the books of the Bible) is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books.  These documents didn’t derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together.

For somebody now to say that the canon emerged only after councils and synods made these pronouncements would be like saying, ‘Let’s get several academies of musicians to make a pronouncement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful.’  I would say, ‘Thank you for nothing!  We knew that before the pronouncement was made.’” 1

The books of the Bible were chosen because they were already considered God-inspired, authoritative and authentic, and were accepted by God’s people.  These people saw something in these books that changed people’s lives, and was unlike anything they read elsewhere.

Historical Confirmation

The historical authenticity of the Bible can be established by examining three lines of evidence – bibliographical, internal and external.

Evidence

Bibliographical examination of a text considers the quantity and quality of available manuscripts (i.e., very old copies of the text), as well as the time span between when the text was originally thought to be written and the date the earliest available manuscripts were written.  Consider the following.

  • Quantity – The number of ancient copies of the New Testament (24,000 and counting) dwarfs the number of ancient copies of other respected writings from antiquity.  After the New Testament, the book with the most known ancient manuscripts is Homer’s Iliad with 650 copies.  Lee Strobel writes, “manuscript evidence for the New Testament [is] overwhelming when juxtaposed against other revered writings of antiquity – works that modern scholars have absolutely no reluctance treating as authentic.” 2
  • Quality – “The New Testament… has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5% pure” (i.e., un-corrupted). 3
  • Time span – The time period between when the New Testament books were written and the date of the oldest copies in existence is significantly shorter than that same time period for “almost any other piece of ancient literature.”4  “The time span for most of the New Testament is less than 200 years (and some books are within 100 years) from the date of authorship to the date of our earliest manuscripts.  This can be sharply contrasted with the average gap of over 1,000 years between the composition and the earliest copy of the writings of other ancient authors.” 5

While the bibliographical evidence supporting the New Testament appears strong, the Old Testament is a different story.  According to Boa & Moody,

“In the case of the Old Testament, there are a small number of Hebrew manuscripts, because the Jewish scribes ceremonially buried imperfect and worn manuscripts.  Many ancient manuscripts were also lost or destroyed during Israel’s turbulent history.” 6

So how can we test the authenticity of the Old Testament?  Well, one way is to examine how the New Testament treats the Old.  Having already established the strength of the New testament’s authenticity, one could conclude that if the New Testament treats Old Testament writings as authoritative, then they must be so.  It turns out that, by a number of measures, this is the case.  Consider the following:

“The New Testament contains an extraordinarily large number of Old Testament quotations.  It is difficult to give an accurate figure since the variation in use ranges all the way from a distant allusion to a definite quotation…  As a result, the figures given by various authors often reflect a startling discrepancy.

A very conservative count discloses unquestionably at least 295 separate references to the Old Testament. These occupy some 352 verses of the New Testament, or more than 4.4 per cent. Therefore one verse in 22.5 of the New Testament is a quotation.

If clear allusions are taken into consideration, the figures are much higher: C. H. Toy lists 613 such instances, Wilhelm Dittmar goes as high as 1640, while Eugen Huehn indicates 4105 passages reminiscent of Old Testament Scripture.  It can therefore be asserted, without exaggeration, that more than 10 per cent of the New Testament text is made up of citations or direct allusions to the Old Testament.

Out of the 22 books in the Hebrew [Bible] only six… are not explicitly referred to. The more extensive lists of Dittmar and Huehn show passages reminiscent of all Old Testament books without exception.”  7

Also, look at Jesus Christ’s own endorsement of the Old Testament.

“Jesus Christ himself provides a most arresting example in this respect.  At the very threshold of his public ministry, our Lord, in his dramatic victory over Satan’s threefold onslaught, rested his whole defense on the authority of three passages of Scripture. He quoted the Old Testament in support of his teaching to the crowds; he quoted it in his discussions with antagonistic Jews; he quoted it in answer to questions both captious and sincere; he quoted it in instructing the disciples who would have readily accepted his teaching on his own authority; he referred to it in his prayers, when alone in the presence of the Father; he quoted it on the cross, when his sufferings could easily have drawn his attention elsewhere; he quoted it in his resurrection glory, when any limitation, real or alleged, of the days of his flesh was clearly superseded. Whatever may be the differences between the pictures of Jesus drawn by the four Gospels, they certainly agree in their representation of our Lord’s attitude toward the Old Testament: one of constant use and of unquestioning endorsement of its authority.” 8

Clearly, the New Testament views the Old Testament as authoritative.

Internal Evidence

A search for internal evidence is an examination of what the Bible says about itself.  While this may seem like circular reasoning (how can you us the Bible to prove the Bible is true?), there’s more to it than that.  Here’s a sampling of what I mean.

  • The majority of the Bible was written by men who claim to be eyewitnesses to the events it records.  If taken at their word – and we have no reasonable reason not to – they provide a first-hand account of events.  In our society, we greatly value the testimony of eyewitnesses.  The testimony of as little as one or two eyewitnesses is enough to send a man to his death in a court of law.
  • While the Bible was written by numerous authors from various walks of life over a large span of time, its message is consistent throughout.  For example, despite a handful of apparent contradictions among the four gospels, their message is amazingly consistent and uniform.  Most contradictions are minor in nature while the more famous ones have plausible explanations.  If you were to read four books on, say, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there would certainly be some variation in the accounts, but no one would question that they occurred or the core facts surrounding them.  Also, if the gospels were too consistent it would invalidate each as an independent record of what happened.
  • Bible authors like the prophets and apostles endured great hardship, persecution and even martyrdom for sharing their message.  Many of the apostles were, in fact, executed for their beliefs.  Now ask yourself, would you suffer – to the point of death – for something you knew to be untrue?  I doubt it, and I doubt that’s what happened to the Bible authors who were martyred.  Furthermore, Jesus Christ was crucified – a terrible, abhorrent thing.  The fact that a powerful movement rose up, in the face of persecution, following a man who suffered such a fate is rather difficult to explain.
  • The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written and named after “unlikely characters”9 rather than well-known and influential people.  Isn’t this contrary to all human logic?  If you want to market something, you associate it with the famous and well-known – yet these books did the opposite and still thrived.
  • Paul’s letters are believed to have been written between the late 40s and 60 A.D.  The gospels are believed to have been written between the late 50s and 100 A.D.  (End-of-century estimates are from very liberal sources.)  These estimates are “…within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around.”10
    The New Testament contains 27 books/letters that attest to the life and times of Jesus Christ.  Twenty seven.  That’s a lot of books about one person at a time when writing was far less common than it is today.

The gospels themselves are history, rich with detail.  I guess the reason people don’t treat them as such is because of their shocking claims of Christ’s resurrection and the forgiveness of sins.

External Evidence

A search for external evidence is one that looks for confirmation of the Bible in extra-biblical (i.e., outside the Bible) writings as well as archeology.  We will treat archeology in a separate section below.  For now, here’s a sampling of extra-biblical writings focused only on the New Testament (for brevity’s sake).

  • Flavius Josephus (37-to-approximately 100 A.D.) – Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian.  He is well-known among scholars and considered a “very good historian” by the standards of his day.11  His account of the war between the Jews and Rome starting in 66 A.D. (in Jewish War) has been corroborated by archeological evidence and other historical writings.  In Antiquities of the Jews, “Josephus made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and James [the brother of Jesus].  In this work, Josephus gave us many background details about the Herods, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the high priests like Annas and Caiaphas, and the Roman emperors mentioned in the Gospels and Acts.”12  (FYI, Josephus’ writings “…provide most of our information about Palestine in Jesus’ day.”13)
  • Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 A.D.) – Tacitus “…is one of the important historians of Roman Antiquity. The surviving portions of his two major works – the Annals and the Histories – treat the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero.”14  Some believe he recorded the most important extra-biblical reference to Jesus Christ.  In Annals 15.44, he mentions “Christus” suffering “the extreme penalty… at the hands of… Pontius Pilate.”
  • Pliny the Younger (63-133 A.D.) – Among other things, Pliny the Younger was a lawyer, author, poet, orator and eventually a Roman Governor.  In his Letters (10.96), he wrote of Christians honoring Christ “as if to a God.”

There are other sources we could discuss (see reference below15), but I’ll stop here.  What I’d like to emphasize is that, despite the fact that Jesus was not well known outside of Palestine and that his ministry only spanned 3.5 years (a fraction of history), a number of references were made to him outside of the Bible not long after he lived.

Archeological Confirmation

Using archeology to prove the Bible’s accuracy can be a tricky exercise if one isn’t careful.  People are apt to interpret findings in ways that supports their views.  One extreme viewpoint is that of biblical minimalists who believe the scriptures are nothing but legends and fables and therefore of little-to-no historical value.  There are also defenders of the Bible who point out data that supports their position while ignoring discoveries that appear at odds with it.

While I’m no archeology expert, and there are certainly significant gaps in the archeological record, it seems to me that with the passage of time more and more evidence appears in support of Biblical accounts than not.  Many times, holes in the archeological record have been filled with dramatic discoveries.  Jeffery Sheler seems to summarize the state of affairs nicely when he writes:

“In extraordinary ways, modern archeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments – corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel’s patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus.”16

In the following subsections, we’ll take a look at some significant discoveries.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

No discussion of biblical archeology would be complete without mentioning the Dead Sea Scrolls.  They’ve been called “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times” by the famous biblical archeologist William F. Albright,17 and are recognizable in name by most people.  But what did the discovery of these scrolls tell us?  Well, for one thing they show us that our modern Bible has been incredibly well preserved over the centuries.  Consider the following.

“Before the discovery of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were Masoretic texts dating from the ninth century A.D.

Now, scholars could lay the modern Old Testament alongside these ancient Hebrew texts and judge just how well it had weathered the centuries.

…the scrolls have shown that our traditional Bible has been amazingly accurately preserved for over 2,000 years.

A dramatic example of that textual preservation was found in the Great Isaiah Scroll, the only fully intact biblical document salvaged from the Qumran caves.  [It] contains all 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah that are found in the traditional Bible.  Beyond some incidental “typos” and minor copying errors, scholars have found only 13 relatively small variations – a phrase or a verse or two missing or added – when compared with the modern text.  The average reader today… would look at these differences and say, ‘It’s no big deal.’  For the most part, they do nothing to alter the meaning of the text and, taken as a whole, attest to the meticulous accuracy of the Masoretic scribes who hand-copied the Hebrew Bible through the first thousand years of the common era.”18

It turns out that about half of the Dead Sea Scroll’s texts either contained passages not found in our modern Bible, or omitted some passages found in it.  The total number of these passages does not appear to be great.  For example, several of the many copies of the Book of Psalms found at Qumran contain 9 additional psalms plus most but not all of the 150 canonical (i.e., accepted) psalms.  Most scholars, though, don’t believe these additional psalms were written by David, as it’s believed the canonical ones were.  The other additions/omissions appear to be more limited and mostly minor.  Nothing found at Qumran indicates a preference for any one version over another.

Davidic References

For many years, Bible critics noted that King David’s name had never been found outside of the scriptures in recordings from antiquity.  Then, in 1993, a ninth century B.C. basalt stone containing the expressions “king of Israel” and “the House of David” was unearthed.  The stone was determined to be part of a monument commemorating a military victory for the king of Damascus over two of his enemies.  In other words, the inscription was not created by Jewish scribes.  This discovery renewed interest in a previously-discovered ninth century monument known as the Mesha Stele.  The Mesha monument commemorates Moabite king Mesha’s victory over Israel and specifically mentions Israel’s King Omri (See 1 Kings 16:21-27 for Biblical references to king Omri).  Furthermore, a partially obliterated line on the monument is now believed to say “house of David.”  According to National Geographic, until the discovery of the Mesha Stele, “there was no non-biblical evidence that David actually existed.  Few dispute it now.”19

Twelve years later, an archeologist named Eilat Mazar claimed to unearth King David’s palace in Old Jerusalem.  While her claims are hotly contested, two additional announcements by archeologists have put critics on the defensive.  The first proclaimed the discovery of a Judean city that has been dated to the exact period during which David ruled.  The second announced the discovery of a vast copper-smelting operation that is believed to have belonged to David and his son Solomon.  According to National Geographic, the archeologists involved in both discoveries “support their contentions with a host of scientific data…  If the evidence from their ongoing excavations holds up, yesteryear’s scholars who touted the Bible as a factually accurate account of the David and Solomon story may be vindicated.”20

Evidence Concerning Jesus

Jesus Christ’s life spanned little more than thirty years and his public ministry lasted only a few.  Archeologically speaking, this is a very small sliver in time.  Furthermore, he preached in an area of the world (i.e., Palestine) that, at the time, was more remote than cosmopolitan.  One shouldn’t be surprised, then, that evidence of his life outside the Bible is difficult to come by.  Regardless, there have been some discoveries that shed light on the validity of the gospel stories.  For example, the 1968 discovery of the remains of someone crucified during Jesus’ time confirmed Biblical details of his crucifixion.  The skeleton’s arms had been nailed to a cross bar, its knees were bent upward, an iron nail had been driven through both heals (and was still stuck in one of them), and its shin bones were broken.  All of these things match the gospel accounts.  Furthermore, the body was found in a cave.  Biblical critics said such a burial was not allowed by the Romans at that time, but here was evidence to the contrary.  Other examples include the 1961 discovery of the Pilate Stone that confirmed Pontius Pilate’s first century rule over Judea, and the 1990 discovery of an ossuary with the Caiaphas inscription, which experts believe contained the remains of the Jewish high priest who interrogated and handed Jesus over to Pilate to be executed.

Perhaps the most important discovery of all, though, has only recently gained attention.  A collection of 70 lead codices that is believed to date back to the first century, and possibly contain references to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, is being studied by British archeologists.  “David Elkington, an ancient religion scholar who heads the British research team investigating the find, has pronounced this nothing less than ‘the major discovery of Christian history.’”21  While the initial reaction from biblical scholars who have seen the codices is favorable, everyone involved in their examination is proceeding with caution in light of the potential importance of their contents.

Other Evidence

There is lots of other evidence we could discuss like: the discovery of the great gate of Solomon; how historical details recorded in the story of Joseph match information discovered from the same time period; how a river flow thought to be inaccurately portrayed in the scriptures was found to have flowed the way described when satellite images were inspected; how consistently the Bible portrays the Philistine people, who weren’t even believed to exist until discoveries in modern times; the “Israel is laid waste” inscription on a monument commemorating a Ramses II 1207 B.C. military campaign; and evidence of the rapid expansion of the population in Canaan during the same period the Israelites were believed to have moved into the area (plus evidence that the new inhabitants didn’t eat pork!).


Summary

I think you’d have to agree that there is solid evidence that points to the reliability and accuracy of the scriptures.

– – –

  1. Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998, page 69.
  2. Ibid, page 61.
  3. Norman L. Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible.  Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1968, page 361.
  4. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964, page 15.
  5. Ken Boa & Larry Moody, I’m Glad You Asked.  Colorado Springs, Co.: Victor Books/SP Publications, Inc., 1994, page 93.
  6. Ibid, Page 91.
  7. http://www.bible-researcher.com/nicole.html, or see Roger Nicole’s work in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl. F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), pp. 137-151.
  8. http://www.bible-researcher.com/nicole.html
  9. Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998, page 23.  Craig Bloomberg quoted.
  10. Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998, page 33.  Craig Bloomberg quoted.
  11. E. P. Saunders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.  New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, Page 16.
  12. Ken Boa & Larry Moody, I’m Glad You Asked.  Colorado Springs, Co.: Victor Books/SP Publications, Inc., 1994, page 95.
  13. E. P. Saunders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.  New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993, Page 15.
  14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacitus.
  15. Suetonius; Lucian; Thallus (via Julius Africanus); Papias (via Eusebius); Irenaeus; Clement of Rome; Ignatius; Polycarp; and the Talmud.
  16. Jeffery Sheler, Is The Bible True?.  U.S. New & World Report, October 25, 1999, Page 52.
  17. Jeffery Sheler, The Liberation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  U.S. News & World Report Special Edition: Mysteries of the Bible, February 1, 2005, Page 62.
  18. Jeffery Sheler, The Scrolls and Scripture.  U.S. News & World Report Special Edition: Mysteries of the Bible, February 1, 2005, Page 67.
  19. Robert Draper, The Search For King David.  National Geographic, December, 2010, page 73.
  20. Ibid, page 75.
  21. http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout/20110330/ts_yblog_thelookout/could-lead-codices-prove-the-major-discovery-of-christian-history