The reliability of the Bible

Giving credit where credit is due, I have copied the following from The Reliability of the Bible by Kenneth Boa. I think it is important that we understand that the Bible is a reliable document. Some may still argue that it is not authoritative, in terms of dictating how I am to live, but that will be each person’s personal decision. As for myself, I decided some years ago that the claims of the Bible cannot be ignored and I prefer to live my life as though the God of the Bible exists and is interested in my welfare.

The Reliability of the Biblical Documents

This can be demonstrated by combining three lines of evidence: the bibliographic test, the internal test, and the external test. The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second test deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third test looks to outside confirmation of biblical content.

The Bibliographic Test

This test examines the transmission of the text of the Old and New Testaments from the original autographs to the present day. The three aspects of this test are the quantity, quality, and time span of the manuscripts.

1. The quantity of manuscripts

In the case of the Old Testament, there is 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. Also, the Old Testament text was standardized by the Masoretic Jews by the sixth century A.D., and all manuscripts that deviated from the Masoretic Text were evidently eliminated. But the existing Hebrew manuscripts are supplemented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (a third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Targums (ancient paraphrases of the Old Testament), as well as the Talmud (teachings and commentaries related to the Hebrew Scriptures).

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, about 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and another 1,000 manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Coptic, etc.). In addition to this extraordinary number, there are tens of thousands of citations of New Testament passages by the early church fathers. In contrast, the typical number of existing manuscript copies for any of the works of the Greek and Latin authors, such as Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, or Tacitus, ranges from one to 20.

2. The quality of manuscripts

Because of the great reverence the Jewish scribes held toward the Scriptures, they exercised extreme care in making new copies of the Hebrew Bible. The entire scribal process was specified in meticulous detail to minimize the possibility of even the slightest error. The number of letters, words, and lines were counted, and the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament were determined. If a single mistake was discovered, the entire manuscript would be destroyed. As a result of this extreme care, the quality of the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible surpasses all other ancient manuscripts. The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provided a significant check on this, because these Hebrew scrolls antedate the earliest Masoretic Old Testament manuscripts by about 1,000 years. But in spite of this time span, the number of variant readings between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text is quite small, and most of these are variations in spelling and style. While the quality of the Old Testament manuscripts is excellent, that of the New Testament is very good–considerably better than the manuscript quality of other ancient documents. Because of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, there are many variant readings, but these variants are actually used by scholars to reconstruct the original readings by determining which variant best explains the others in any given passage. Some of these variant readings crept into the manuscripts because of visual errors in copying or because of auditory errors when a group of scribes copied manuscripts that were read aloud. Other errors resulted from faulty writing, memory, and judgment, and still others from well-meaning scribes who thought they were correcting the text. Nevertheless, only a small number of these differences affect the sense of the passages, and only a fraction of these have any real consequences. Furthermore, no variant readings are significant enough to call into question any of the doctrines of the New Testament. The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure, and the correct readings for the remaining 0.5 percent can often be ascertained with a fair degree of probability by the practice of textual criticism.

3. The time span of manuscripts

Apart from some fragments, the earliest Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament is dated at A.D. 895. This is due to the systematic destruction of worn manuscripts by the Masoretic scribes. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from 250 B.C. to A.D. 70 drastically reduced the time span from the writing of the Old Testament books to our earliest copies of them. The time span of the New Testament manuscripts is exceptional. The manuscripts written on papyrus came from the second and third centuries A.D. The John Rylands Fragment (P52) of the Gospel of John is dated at A.D. 117-38, only a few decades after the Gospel was written. The Bodmer Papyri are dated from A.D. 175- 225, and the Chester Beatty Papyri date from about A.D. 250. 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.

To summarize the bibliographic test, the Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents. It is especially interesting to make specific comparisons between the New Testament and other writings:

Homer ca. 850 B.C. 643 95%
Herodotus ca. 450 B.C. ca. A.D. 900 About 1,350 8 not enough copies
Euripedes ca. 440 B.C. ca. A.D. 1100 About 1,500 9 not enough copies
Thucydides ca. 420 B.C. ca. A.D. 900 About 1,300 years 8 not enough copies
Plato ca. 380 B.C. ca. A.D. 900 About 1,300 years 7 reconstruct
Aristotle ca. 350 B.C. ca. A.D. 1100 About 1,400 years 5 reconstruct
Caesar ca. 60 B.C. ca. A.D. 900 About 950 years 10 reconstruct
Catullus ca. 50 B.C. ca. A.D. 1500 About 1,600 years 3
the Livy ca. 10 B.C. 20 original
Tacitus ca. A.D. 100 ca. A.D. 1100 About 1,000 years 20 original
New Testament ca. A.D. 60 ca. A.D. 130 About 100 years 14,000 99.5%

The Internal Test

The second test of the reliability of the biblical documents asks, “What claims does the Bible make about itself?” This may appear to be circular reasoning. It sounds like we are using the testimony of the Bible to prove that the Bible is true. But we are really examining the truth claims of the various authors of the Bible and allowing them to speak for themselves. (Remember that the Bible is not one book but many books woven together.) This provides significant evidence that must not be ignored.

A number of biblical authors claim that their accounts are primary, not secondary. That is, much of the Bible was written by men who were eyewitnesses of the events they recorded. John wrote in his Gospel, “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe” (John 19:35; see 21:24). In his first epistle, John wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you” (1 John 1:1,3). Peter makes the same point abundantly clear: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16; also see Acts 2:22; 1 Pet. 5:1). The independent eyewitness accounts in the New Testament of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written by men who were intimately acquainted with Jesus Christ. Their gospels and epistles reveal their integrity and complete commitment to the truth, and they maintained their testimony even through persecution and martyrdom. All the evidence inside and outside the New Testament runs contrary to the claim made by form criticism that the early church distorted the life and teachings of Christ. Most of the New Testament was written between A.D. 47 and 70, and all of it was complete before the end of the first century. There simply was not enough time for myths about Christ to be created and propagated. And the multitudes of eyewitnesses who were alive when the New Testament books began to be circulated would have challenged blatant historical fabrications about the life of Christ. The Bible places great stress on accurate historical details, and this is especially obvious in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Luke’s two-part masterpiece (see his prologue in Luke 1:1-4).

The External Test

Because the Scriptures continually refer to historical events, they are verifiable; their accuracy can be checked by external evidence. Notice, for example, the chronological details in the prologue to Jeremiah (1:1-3) and in Luke 3:1-2. Ezekiel 1:2 allows us to date Ezekiel’s first vision of God to the day (July 31, 592 B.C.). The historicity of Jesus Christ is well-established by early Roman, Greek, and Jewish sources, and these extrabiblical writings affirm the major details of the New Testament portrait of the Lord. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and James in his Antiquities of the Jews. 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. We find another early secular reference to Jesus in a letter written a little after A.D. 73 by an imprisoned Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion. This letter to his son compares the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Christ. Other first- and secondcentury writers who mention Christ include the Roman historians Cornelius Tacitus (Annals) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius, Lives of the Caesars), the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (Epistles), and the Greek satirist Lucian (On the Death of Peregrine). Jesus is also mentioned a number of times in the Jewish Talmud. The Old and New Testaments make abundant references to nations, kings, battles, cities, mountains, rivers, buildings, treaties, customs, economics, politics, dates, etc. Because the historical narratives of the Bible are so specific, many of its details are open to archaeological investigation. The section above on archaeology and the Bible shows that while archaeology does not prove the authority of the Bible, it has provided external confirmation of hundreds of biblical statements. Higher criticism in the nineteenth century made many damaging claims that would completely overthrow the integrity of the Bible, but the explosion of archaeological knowledge in the twentieth century reversed almost all of these claims. Noted archaeologists such as William F. Albright, Nelson Glueck, and G. Ernest Wright developed a great respect for the historical accuracy of the Scriptures as a result of their work.

Conclusion Concerning Reliability

The Old and New Testaments pass the bibliographic, internal, and external tests like no other ancient books. Most professional archaeologists and historians acknowledge the historicity of the Bible and yet many theologians still embrace prearchaeological critical theories about the Bible. The evidence strongly supports the accuracy of the Bible in relation to history and culture, but in many cases it has been overlooked or rejected because of philosophical presuppositions that run contrary to the Scriptures. This leads to a double standard: critics approach secular literature with one standard but wrongly use a different standard when they examine the Bible. Those who discard the Bible as historically untrustworthy must realize that the same standard would force them to eliminate almost all ancient literature.

We have already seen that Christ cannot be dismissed as a mythical creation of the early church. The evidence supports the historical reliability of the gospel accounts about Jesus. Because of this, a solid case can be built for the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection, in turn, authenticates Jesus’ divine claims about Himself. Because Jesus is God, His testimony concerning the Scriptures is true, and He bore witness to the complete authority of the Word of God. Thus, the historical reliability of the New Testament affirms the resurrection of Christ, and the resurrected Christ affirms the divine authority of the Scriptures.


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