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The Reliability of the Bible

The Reliability of the Bible

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No book has had more said about it, good or bad, than the Bible. We now live in a time when many people passionately believe the Bible to be the word of God while many others strongly criticize the Bible as textually corrupt, scientifically naïve, historically incredible, and morally backward. Many people who grew up accepting the Bible as true come to question, doubt, and even reject it. Yet there has never been more evidence in support of the reliability of the Bible than there is today. Recent advances in science and scholarship have answered many of the common criticisms of the Bible. It is unrealistic to try to prove every detail of the Bible or to vindicate all of its statements. However, we have very good reasons indeed to be confident in the Bible and to accept its message: that the God who created us has acted to reconcile estranged humanity to himself through the revelations given to Israel and especially through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Text of the Bible

One of the most common concerns people have about the Bible is whether the actual, original words of the Bible have been preserved. They have heard that the handwritten manuscript copies of the books of the Bible contain numerous differences. Perhaps they were taught that in the process of copying and re-copying the Bible, many passages were changed and even lost. A couple of hundred years ago, this seemed quite plausible because very few manuscripts of the Bible existed from earlier than about the ninth century (or about 800 years after the last books of the Bible were written).

In the past two centuries, however, new evidence has come to light that, properly understood, should lay those concerns to rest. Treasure troves of biblical manuscripts were discovered in monasteries throughout the Middle East and Europe, in an archaeological site in Egypt called Oxyrhynchus (in piles of trash!), and most famously among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are writings used by a Jewish desert sect at Qumran that flourished in the century before Jesus and throughout the lifetimes of Jesus and the apostles. The surviving scrolls include multiple fragments from every book of the Old Testament except one (Esther) and a complete copy of Isaiah. These Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts date from about a thousand years earlier than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known prior to their discovery. The differences in wording between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the medieval manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament text are minute.1 Archaeologists have found papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament dating from the second and third centuries, including a famous fragment of the Gospel of John copied very early in the second century, perhaps twenty to forty years after John was originally written.2

As more and more manuscripts have been discovered, what scholars have found is that nothing in the Bible was lost in the process of copying. Rather, scribes would add a word here or there, or more rarely a sentence, so that what we have in the biblical manuscripts is ever so slightly more, not less, than what was originally in those books. For example, there are now about 5,800 manuscripts known to scholars, each containing various parts or the whole of the New Testament in the original Greek language. In all of these manuscripts, not one sentence has been found that is missing from the King James Version or other translations! In other words, no evidence whatsoever has been found of anything that was ever “lost” from the New Testament. As for what was added, scholars identify some twenty or so verses that were probably added by scribes to the New Testament. Only two of the additions are longer than a sentence—the traditional ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:9-20) and the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). When we take into consideration the fact that there are 7,958 verses in the King James Version of the New Testament, twenty suspect verses is a very tiny amount—about one-quarter of one percent!

It is no exaggeration to say that manuscript studies have vindicated the New Testament as at least 99% pure in the text that has come down to us. This conclusion is confirmed by the many ancient translations of the New Testament into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and so on, and by the many New Testament quotations in the writings of the church fathers—from which quotations alone one could reconstitute the entire New Testament. What little variations there are among the manuscripts do not significantly affect the message or doctrine of the Bible. As several scholars have pointed out, the most common variations in biblical manuscripts are spelling mistakes!3

The Canon of the Bible

The many manuscript discoveries of the past two centuries have also brought to light a number of books that are not part of the Bible, both Jewish writings that are not in the Old Testament and Christian writings that are not in the New. Some critics of the Bible argue that these newly discovered writings were “suppressed” by the early church, suggesting that they have just as much right to be considered scripture as the books that “made it” into the Bible. On this basis, critics often question the validity of the canon of Scripture—the collection of scriptural writings in the bible that are accepted by Christians as authoritative in their teaching about God and how we are to relate to God.

By far the most famous of these noncanonical books are the so-called Gnostic gospels, such as the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary, and Judas. The titles of these works suggest to the uninformed that they are just as credible as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Such is actually far from true. Nearly all scholars date the four New Testament Gospels to the second half of the first century (roughly AD 50-100), within the lifetimes of the apostles, but date the Gnostic gospels to the middle and later parts of the second century (about 125-200). No scholar thinks that Thomas, Peter, Mary, or Judas (!) had anything to do with the composition or contents of the gospels that bear their names. Even skeptical and agnostic scholars agree that the New Testament Gospels are our most reliable sources of information about what Jesus really said and did—and that very little if anything new about the historical Jesus can be learned from the Gnostic gospels.4

If anything, the study of these apocryphal writings vindicates the judgment of the early church in setting them aside as inferior to the canonical Gospels. As long as we were lacking most of these alternative scriptures, it seemed reasonable to wonder if we were missing something that belonged in the Bible. Now that we have a lot of those “missing” books, we can see that we had the best and most reliable books in the Bible all along.

Creation, Science, and the Bible

If we take our cue from the media, it must seem as though modern science has thoroughly discredited the Bible, especially its account of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis. Ever since the Scopes trial in 1925, when Tennessee’s law prohibiting the teaching of Darwinism was tested in the courtroom, the issue has been framed as a conflict between educated scientists and ignorant fundamentalists, between science and the Bible. Yet this is grossly unfair to the Bible. Ironically, most of the controversial questions endlessly debated in this conflict, such as the age of the earth, are not directly addressed in the Bible. (What the Bible says may have some implications for such questions, but answering them does not seem to be part of the biblical agenda.) Meanwhile, the basic worldview that Genesis (along with the rest of the Bible) teaches has actually been corroborated by advances in science, especially in the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, many scientists held out the possibility that the universe was eternal, meaning that it had simply always existed—and therefore did not need to be created. Those who were looking for an atheistic view of the universe thought that science was on their side. The bigger the telescopes got, the bigger the universe appeared. It was natural to guess that the universe simply went on in all directions forever, that it was infinitely large as well as infinitely old, so that the universe was literally everything and had no Creator.

This rosy atheistic picture of the universe was shattered by discoveries in astronomy in the twentieth century. Albert Einstein’s relativity theories contained mathematical implications that the universe had not always existed—implications that Einstein himself tried to find ways of avoiding. But then astronomers made observations that confirmed the math. They found that the universe is expanding in all directions, like a balloon inflating, implying that the universe had originated at a single point some finite time ago. This new theory, called the Big Bang, predicted that there would be an extremely faint background radiation left over from the initial creation event—a radiation that two astronomers accidentally discovered in 1965 when cleaning their telescope. In addition to this evidence that the universe had a beginning, scientists discovered that the universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to function as a stable environment in which interesting things like planets, plants, and people can all exist. Many scientists grudgingly admitted that the evidence implies some sort of Creator, even if they continued to search for loopholes in that evidence.5

Advances in biology have also brought surprising evidence for the biblical worldview in which God is the Creator of life. The assumption of modern biology until about the mid-twentieth century was that life could have originated naturalistically from very simple, very small “building blocks.” That paradigm changed when scientists discovered the incredible complexity of the cell and of its components. Rather than simple building blocks, cells turn out to be something more akin to miniature cities, involving complex mechanisms for taking in nutrients, expelling waste, and performing various other internal functions. The molecules of which living things are composed are incredibly complex, information-rich systems. In these and other ways, life now appears more clearly than ever before to have been designed.6

These scientific advances, then, actually confirm the biblical worldview taught in Genesis: that the universe was created by a transcendent Creator (God); that the world has not always existed; and that life on earth was designed and made by God. The details of when and how God did these things remain controversial, but the evidence definitely supports belief in the kind of God described by the Bible.

Archaeology, History, and the Bible

In some circles it is still popular to think that archaeology can prove (or disprove) the Bible. That’s really asking too much from a discipline that gets much of its information from the trash and the tomb. Broken pottery, graffiti on walls, inscriptions on coffins, figurines of deities, partially preserved pieces of paper—these are the stock in trade of the archaeologist. Besides locating ancient manuscripts of the Bible, archaeology has done two things very well.

First, archaeology has illuminated our knowledge of the ancient world in which the biblical writings originated. In doing so it has refined or corrected our understanding of what the Bible means when it refers to people, places, objects, events, or cultural practices that are foreign to us.

Second, archaeology has confirmed or corroborated many specific details of the Bible. Archaeologists have located towns and villages mentioned in the Bible but otherwise unknown today. They have found political and military inscriptions referring to various rulers and other major figures in the biblical world, such as the famous House of David inscription, the Pontius Pilate inscription, and the ossuary (burial box) of Caiaphas, the high priest who called for Jesus’ execution. In some instances they have found evidence confirming specific events, such as the obelisk from the time of the Israelite king Jehu depicting him paying tribute to Shalmaneser, or the bronze and iron arrowheads at the base of an ancient tower of Jerusalem left behind in the battle between the Babylonians and the Jews in 586 BC.7

The most controversial issue in biblical archaeology is the series of events known as the Exodus and the Conquest—the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and their conquest under Joshua of the cities of the Canaanites. If these events happened, they did so well over three thousand years ago, making the task of confirming them through archaeology somewhat daunting. The farther back in time one goes, the sparser the evidence and the more difficult it is to interpret the evidence and correlate it chronologically with other information. Given these limitations, it is somewhat surprising to learn that there is evidence outside the Bible that gives at least some support for the Exodus and Conquest. The Ipuwer Papyrus, dating about 1200 years before Christ, describes a chaotic period in Egyptian history in which slaves were rebelling against their masters, the Nile River turned to blood, and famine and death ravaged the land. Archaeological work in Israel has confirmed that various cities there, including Jericho, were destroyed by conquerors. The main difficulty that scholars have had correlating such information with the Old Testament has been matching biblical chronology with the archaeological timeline. If this problem is solved—and various proposals for doing so are on the table—we could be looking at spectacular confirmation of the Old Testament’s most important historical events.8

The Gospels as Historical Sources

Skeptics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dismissed the Gospels as fables, legends, or myths, and for much of that period biblical scholarship seemed to pose little threat to such views. As recently as the 1970s most New Testament scholars confidently asserted that the Gospels were not “biographies” and therefore were not meant by their authors to be read as sources of historical information about what Jesus actually taught and did. By this reasoning, it seemed difficult to defend the Gospels’ claims that Jesus had performed miracles or risen from the dead.

Although the skeptics have not caught up, the picture now looks very different in Gospel scholarship. Several studies, most notably one by British scholar Richard Burridge, have shown that the Gospels are biographies, though written according to the standards or genre of ancient Greco-Roman biographies, not modern Western biographies. So, for example, the fact that the Gospels focus almost entirely on the last few years of Jesus’ life is consistent with Greco-Roman biographies, which are often similarly “lop-sided” in their emphasis on one period of their subjects’ lives.9

The “quest for the historical Jesus” has also taken a more positive turn in the past thirty years or so as scholars have begun to integrate their studies of the Gospels into a richer understanding of first-century Galilee and Judea. Something close to a consensus has emerged on a number of issues about Jesus, even among scholars who do not view the Gospels as inspired. Doubts about the historical existence of Jesus have been relegated to the fringes of pseudo-scholarship.10 There is now no credible doubt that Jesus was a Jewish man from Galilee, that he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, that Jesus had an itinerant ministry throughout the area accompanied by a group of close followers, and that he was widely reputed at least to have performed miracles of exorcisms and healings. Historians do not deny that Jesus was arrested during Passover time, that Jewish and Roman authorities were both involved, and that Jesus died by crucifixion on the order of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Most historians even acknowledge that Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb and that soon after his followers had experiences they sincerely understood to be appearances of the risen Jesus, alive from the dead.

The Miracles and Resurrection of Jesus

Of course, the central issue of biblical reliability is whether Jesus Christ is the supernatural, risen Son of God, as the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament proclaim. If he is, then Christianity is true and the Bible’s most important and astounding claim is true. On the other hand, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, or if we simply have no reason to think that he did, then a giant question mark hangs over the Bible and the Christian faith.

Once again, the evidence has never looked better. For most of the past two centuries skeptics and humanists could get away with dismissing the miracles of Jesus on the grounds that such things simply don’t happen. Such dismissiveness seemed reasonable to philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, in whose Western European early modern culture the reality of miracles was mostly a matter of belief regarding miracles of the past. However, as Christianity has become a global religion and in particular has grown exponentially outside of Europe, and as historians and anthropologists have studied miracles in Christian history worldwide, it has become apparent that miracles like those performed by Jesus are not mere curiosities of the past. Craig Keener’s massive two-volume study of miracles published in 2012 documents literally thousands of miracle reports throughout history and on every continent.11

In the light of this evidence, historians should take a fresh look at the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Once one gets past prejudices against miracles in general, the evidence for the Resurrection becomes compelling. That Jesus was crucified is historically as certain as anything can be from that era. That Jesus’ followers were convinced a few days later that he had risen from the grave is a hard fact acknowledged by the vast majority of scholars. A year or so later, a Pharisee named Saul (Paul) who opposed the Christian movement himself testified that Jesus had appeared to him and appointed him to preach the Christian message to Gentiles—people that Paul had regarded as unclean. The best explanation for these facts is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead.12

Conclusion

The evidence for the reliability of the Bible has never been greater. We have surprising evidence that God exists, that he intervened in history to reveal himself to the Jews, and that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the grave, vindicating himself as the Son of God and confirming the truth of the biblical message. While the truth of Christianity cannot be proved in the same way one proves a theorem of geometry, the evidence that the Bible is historically reliable has never been greater.

 

NOTES


1. A standard introduction to the subject that provides detailed information about the Dead Sea Scroll biblical manuscripts is James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

2. This manuscript, part of the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in England, is a papyrus fragment with the classification symbol P52. (See the Library’s page devoted to the “St. John Fragment.”) Its importance is not in how much text it preserves (only parts of a few verses in John 18) but in its early date. Nearly all scholars date P52 to between AD 110 and 140, though a very few scholars have argued for a date in the second half of the second century.

3. This is a point on which agnostic Bart Ehrman and evangelical Daniel Wallace, both prominent scholars in New Testament textual criticism, agree. See, for example, Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace, “The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: A Dialogue,” in The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 21, 40-41.

4. On these books, see especially Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson—Nelson Books, 2006); Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006).

5. See Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978); Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God, 3rd ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001); Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, The 2009 Gifford Lectures (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009); and many other excellent works on these subjects.

6. See especially Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008); Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009).

7. There are many excellent reference works on biblical archaeology and history. See, for example, the Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005); James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (London: Lion Hudson, 2008); and Gary M. Burge, Gene L. Green, and Lynn H. Cohick, The New Testament in Antiquity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

8. Stimulating defenses of the historicity of the Exodus taking somewhat different perspectives include Emmanuel Anati, The Mountain of God (New York: Rizzoli, 1986) and David M. Rohl, Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995).

9. Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Dearborn, MI: Dove Booksellers, 2004).

10. See for example Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), who thoroughly refutes the claim that Jesus never existed.

11. Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).

12. See especially Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).