Is The Bible Historically Reliable?
|by J.W. Moore|
|Can I Trust the Bible?
Evidence for the Bible
Fulfilled Prophecy: Evidence for the Reliability of the Bible
The December 18, 1995 cover of Time magazine asked the question, "Is the Bible Fact or Fiction?" A sidebar to the featured article, "Are the Bible's Stories True?", cited the following opinions (emphasis added) summarizing some of the oldest events from the Word of God :
For the evangelical Christian who steadfastly believes the Bible to be the Word of God such conclusions are shocking. But, aren't we also accustomed to expecting such attitudes from the lost souls of the secular press and academia? Or, do we accommodate their opinions without defense (thereby supporting Relativism and the denial of absolute truth promoted by Humanism)? Even "experts," such as Hershel Shanks, founding editor of the influential magazine Biblical Archaeology Review stated in the above named article, "You can't look at the text literally. It wasn't written as modern history is written. But on the other hand, it's certainly not made up."  What is Shanks really saying here? How do you reach someone like him?
The cornerstone of the Christian faith is the Bible. Without it we could not know anything about God or His plan for mankind. Yet, there are myriads of real Christians who know nothing about the Bible as a literary and historical document. They are intellectually defenseless before a keen adversary intent on ridiculing their "subjective" beliefs. This is especially true at any stage of evangelism, whether it is seed planting, watering, or harvesting. Sooner or later the person you are evangelizing will question the reliability of what you testify to what God has said. They may verbalize it or not. But they will question the credibility of the Bible! And they will expect you to answer their concerns.
We could rightly blame Satan for their attitude. But doing so does not bring you any closer to enlightening them to the truth. Rather, a non-defense of the Bible and the historic Christian faith accomplishes two things: it confirms their suspicion that you are unable to defend what you believe; and, (worse) it creates a state of disobedience to what God has commanded in 1 Peter 3:14-15 ("... And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.").
In the course of your dialogue you will ultimately refer to the Bible and what God has divinely caused to be written in it. Usually the unbeliever who verbalizes their distrust will view your "subjective" faith in the Word of God with an air of incredulity. They will sincerely begin to doubt your sanity. And, because of their mindset, they believe that they have good reason to do so! After all, they will say, "Who can believe in a book written thousands of years ago?"; or, "How do you know the Bible is a duplicate of the original writings, as you claim?" Moreover, if they value your friendship and sincerely desire to continue to think of you as a reasonable person, they will appeal to your objectivity, common sense and reasoning abilities with, "Surely you don't believe that there were not some mistakes made in transcription or translation over time."; or, "I have always known you to be an intelligent and reasonable person. Do you really believe that such an ancient book as your Bible remains completely unchanged today after so many years?" I have heard these comments; so will you at some point in time. How would you respond to the sincere, imploring voice of reason?
First, we must understand that their worldview is distinctly different than the Biblical worldview a real Christian must cultivate. They continue to believe in "relativism" and the right of all individuals to be respected for their beliefs, regardless of what they are. Such a cultural posture is the product of the complete denial of any "absolute truths" as fostered by the philosophy of secular Humanism. However, you also most likely had the same worldview at one time, and you also know how they expect to be treated intellectually as well as socially. This knowledge is a distinct advantage to the regenerated Christian. Second, there are two defenses a Christian can employ that are acceptable to their worldview: 1) philosophical reasoning (not recommended); and, 2) an articulate presentation of the objective facts that verify the reliability of the Bible as a legitimate historical document.
Philosophical reasoning is not recommended simply because few people have been trained in the art of logical argumentation. Before you even consider using it, you must be absolutely confident of your reasoning skills ("Have you studied philosophy and philosophical reasoning?"). Moreover, this type of reasoning (Aristotelian Logic) has been replaced by modern philosophical systems that support the philosophy of Humanism. However, all people readily grasp the concepts of pure logic if an argument it is structured and presented correctly. Nonetheless, if you believe that you could hold your own without becoming bogged down in circular logic, this philosophical defense requires that your opponent at least agree to the supposition of the reality of God (do not get sidetracked with the ontological argument or any other philosophical argument for the existence of God, just secure their cooperation to the presupposition). An example of this argument style is as follows:
Such a defense can be effective for the person who prides himself on his perceived objectivity and ability to apply logic to problem solving. With such a person you will at the very least get him thinking about the Bible as well as God. But a more excellent way to reason against unbelief in the Bible as God's Word is to know and be able to articulate the incredible facts that attest to the reliability of the Bible as a historical document. That is the subject of this presentation.
The heart of this matter for both Christians and others is an assurance of the historical reliability of the Bible. Quite simply, "Does the text of the Bible have any credibility as historic literature?"; or, "How closely does the modern Bible follow the original writings?" All documents of antiquity, even those modern forgeries that claim authenticity, are subjected to a process termed historiography; i.e., subjecting the document in question to specific tests to determine its reliability.
The Military historian, C. Sanders lists the three basic tests of
These tests determine the historicity and credibility of any ancient manuscript. But, beware that secular "experts" have applied these standards of measurement unequally to the Bible. Such tests are routine for non-Scriptural manuscripts; i.e., Caesar's "History of the Gallic Wars", Lively's "History of Rome", or Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey." However, when the Old and New Testament manuscripts are tested by the same standards, their historiography far surpasses any other ancient manuscript. Such evidence is overwhelming, but ignored by "experts" as the following examples will reveal!
The Bibliographical Test
The bibliographical test is an examination of the reliability of the copies of documents (that were transmitted from the original written document(s), known as autographs). This test answers the question, "Because we don't have the autographs, how reliable are the manuscript copies that we have? There are two principle factors that apply to the bibliographical test: 1) the quantity of manuscript copies; and, 2) the time interval between the autographs and the existing manuscript copies.
The Bibliographical Evidence of the New Testament and Homer's "Iliad" Compared
Homer's Iliad is secular literature from ancient Greece that has the largest number of manuscript copies (designated MSS) in existence (excluding the New Testament). Both the Iliad and the New Testament MSS were written in the same language (Greek). Both were considered "Sacred" writings of their culture. Both have had been subject to debate regarding the authenticity of the authors. Indeed, for many years the Iliad had been considered to be authentic Greek literature of antiquity, but unreliable in its portrayal of Greek civilization and historical events until modern archaeology began to substantiate many of the claims of Homer, just like the New Testament. Let us subject both of these documents to the bibliographical test. The author assumes the reader has familiarity with the general content of the New Testament books and letters, but may not be familiar with Homer's Iliad.
The Iliad is major epic of Greek antiquity written in a poetic literary style that is set in the final year of the Trojan War (c. 1200 B.C.), which forms the background for its central plot -- the story of the wrath of the Greek hero Achilles. Homer is the name traditionally assigned to the author of both the Iliad and Odyssey, the two major epics of Greek antiquity. Nothing is known of Homer as an individual, and in fact the question of whether a single person can be said to be responsible for the creation of these two epics is highly controversial. Linguistic and historical evidence, however, concedes a supposition that the poems were composed in the Greek settlements on the west coast of Asia Minor in the latter half of the 8th century B.C. Thus, historians doubt the actual existence of an individual named "Homer" credited as the author of the "Iliad;" but, they also presume that the literature was indeed written by ancient Greeks in the late 8th century B.C. Now, let us examine the bibliographical evidence of transmission of the Iliad to the present:
Thus, Homer's Iliad, with 643 MSS in existence, having an earliest MS copy dating only 500 years from the time of its writing is widely accepted as a completely reliable literature or history by scholars. In other words, there is no doubt in their minds that the existing MSS of Iliad are indeed actual copies of an original document that has never been located.
By comparison, let us examine the bibliographical evidence of transmission of the New Testament to the present:
Thus, the New Testament, with more than 24,000 MSS in existence, having an oldest MS dating to only 25 years from the time of its original writing is not considered as reliable literature or history by scholars!
Textual Comparison of the New Testament and Homer's Iliad
Textual comparison between copies of ancient MSS generally reveals variations in the actual text between one copy and another. These variations may be differences in spelling, punctuation, grammar, or differences in the actual content of the text itself. Most variants of ancient MSS reveal differences in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Obviously, the greater the number of copies in existence proportionately increases the statistical probability of differences between them. But a word of caution must be observed to understand what the word 'variant' truly means when applied to textual comparisons of documents of antiquity. In their text, When Skeptics Ask, the authors, Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, point out "It is easy for someone to leave the wrong impression by saying that there are 200,000 'errors' that have crept into the Bible when the word should be 'variants.' A variant is counted any time one copy is different from any other copy and it is counted again in every copy where it appears. So when a single word is spelled differently in 3,000 copies, that is counted as 3,000 variants. In fact, there are only 10,000 places where variants occur [in the New Testament] and most of those are matters of spelling and word order. There are less than 40 places in the New Testament where we are really not certain which reading is original, but not one of these has any effect on a central doctrine of the faith. Note: the problem is not that we don't know what the text is, but that we are not certain which text has the right reading. We have 100 percent of the New Testament and we are sure about 99.5 percent of it." [emphasis added] 
The Iliad and the New Testament are both good books to compare. Just as the New Testament is Sacred to Christians, the Iliad was "Sacred" to the ancient Greeks, and both books were written in Greek. Both texts underwent textual changes and criticism of their Greek manuscripts. However, a scholarly examination of textual variants among all extant MSS reveals 764 lines of the Iliad in question, with only 40 lines (400 words total) of the New Testament are in doubt. Thus, the total textual corruption of the Iliad is 5.0% as compared to only 0.5% for the New Testament! And yet, in light of these facts, "scholars" still doubt the historical reliability of the New Testament! 
There is yet another very strong bibliographic support for the accuracy of the New Testament in its large numbers of translations into other languages besides Greek. This fact is unusual since ancient literature was rarely translated into another language. However, Christianity is a missionary faith and has been from its inception in the 1st century A.D. The earliest versions of the New Testament were prepared by missionaries for use among peoples whose native language was Syriac, Latin, or Coptic. These translations were prepared around A.D. 150 (once again a very close time interval to the original autographs) and currently number more than 15,000 existing MSS.
The Internal Evidence Test for the Reliability of the New Testament
The bibliographical test determines only if a MSS transmits what was originally written in the autograph(s). The task still remains to determine the extent of credibility of that written record. This is the matter of internal criticism.
Literary critics apply Aristotle's dictum in all such cases of internal criticisms: "The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, and not arrogated by the critic to himself."  As John W. Montgomery summarizes: "One must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies."  In other words, the ability of the writer or witness to tell the truth is essential to determine credibility. Likewise, the proximity of the writer or witness both geographically and chronologically to the events recorded is also crucial to determining the reliability of the written record.
In the case of the New Testament, which essentially records the accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the writers of the various books and epistles were either eyewitnesses themselves, or they recorded the accounts of eyewitnesses to the actual events or teachings of Jesus. Moreover, there is a closeness in the recorded accounts of the writers of the gospels that is extremely effective in certifying the accuracy of what is recorded. But a historian must also deal with an eyewitness who consciously or unconsciously relates falsehoods regardless of their nearness to the event or their competency to tell the truth. In response to this concern of historians, the internal evidence of the New Testament reveals that the accounts of Jesus' life and teaching were circulated within the lifetimes of people who were witnesses to such. Certainly, they could confirm or deny the accuracy of any of the circulated accounts. As further attestation to the veracity of what was recorded, the writers recorded how the Apostles appealed to the common knowledge concerning Jesus:
Luke records Peter's second sermon to the men gathered for worship in the Temple: "Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know." (Acts 2:22)
Luke also records Paul's testimony before King Agrippa: "And while Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, 'Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.' But Paul said, 'I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner." (Acts 26:24Ð26)
In both of these instances a record of what was said to people hostile to Christianity is recorded. If the record was not factual, those same people who were hostile witnesses would have vigorously challenged the circulated record.
This matter of internal evidence and criticism is the primary reason the Gnostic Gospels of the Pseduopigrapha were never accepted as canonical. External evidence reveals that the authors of such false records falsified their true identity, perhaps in an effort to achieve public recognition of their authority to proclaim what in reality was a false gospel. Likewise, a cursory textual criticism and internal evidence examination of the Gospel of Thomas account of the child Jesus (see Supplement 01: An Overview of the Bible, p. 5) reveals a Jesus of a completely different character and nature than that portrayed consistently in the New Testament text. However, they do supply some degree of the external evidence necessary for the third test of historiography that will be examined next.
In summation of internal evidence, historian Will Durant attests to the historical authenticity of the New Testament: "Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed -- the competition of the apostles for high places in the kingdom, their flight after Jesus' arrest, Peter's denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to His possible insanity, His early uncertainty as to His mission, His confessions of ignorance as to the future, His moments of bitterness, His despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man." 
The External Evidence Test for the Reliability of the New Testament
External evidence is the third test of historicity of ancient MSS. This test subjects the document in question to any supporting external historical materials that would confirm or deny the internal testimony of the document itself. "Conformity or agreement with other known historical or scientific facts is often the decisive test of evidence, whether of one or more witnesses."  As you might expect, the New Testament has such a wealth of external attestation that it staggers the imagination.
Only one quote here is necessary to anchor this evidence. It is from the historian Eusebius who preserved the writings of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (A.D. 30): "The Elder [apostle John] used to say this also: 'Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he [Peter] mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, nor to include any false statement among them." 
The external attestation of the New Testament is so complete that if every copy of the New Testament were lost (including all modern Bibles), the complete document could be assembled solely from various quotations of it in the writings of the early Church Fathers and others. That degree of external evidence is simply amazing! Dr. Clark H. Pinnock effectively summarizes this fact: "There exists no document from the ancient world witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical testimonies and offering so superb an array of historical data on which an intelligent decision may be made. An honest [person] cannot dismiss a source of this kind. Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational [i.e., anti-supernatural] bias." 
And yet, as we have seen, many people including scholars and experts continue to disregard the factual historicity of the New Testament. As for Christians who are not convinced of the reliability of the Bible as the whole Word of God, they especially need to ... be self-controlled and alert because their enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).
Thus far, a cursory examination of the historiography of the New Testament has been presented. But how do the Old Testament MSS compare? After all, both the Old and the New Testaments comprise the Bible as a whole. Before examining the reliability of the Old Testament, the reader needs to remember that the credibility of the New Testament is established beyond all reasonable doubt. And, Jesus referred repeatedly to the Old Testament Scripture -- both in quoting Scripture as well as attesting to its reliability and canonicity. At best, such consideration must contribute to the external evidence for the reliability of the Old Testament. With all due respect to such rigorous objectivity the Christian also needs to carefully consider what the Lord has said about Hebrew Scripture.
The Reliability of the Old Testament
The Old Testament does not have the wealth of MSS evidence as the New Testament; however, once the facts of the extreme caution exercised by the Jews in transcription are brought to light, one will readily see the uniqueness of this Scripture in its reliability.
Following the council of Jamnia in A.D. 70 the canon of Hebrew Scripture was formally established and efforts were taken to duplicate copies of the Scripture for use by the widely scattered Jews. During the period A.D. 100-500 Hebrew civil and canonical law was cataloged by a group of Hebrews known as the Talmudists. They had an extremely intricate system of transcribing synagogue scrolls that approaches fanaticism. Indeed, a Christian begins to glimpse the zealous attention to minute detail that characterized the Hebrew religious system condemned by Jesus. To wit:
Any scroll in which the above regulations were not strictly observed was condemned to be buried in the ground or burned; or they were banished to the schools, to be used as reading books. Once a scroll was transcribed, the Talmudists were so convinced that it was an exact duplicate of the codex they copied from, they gave the new copy equal authority. Thus, when one considers the rigid rules and phenomenal accuracy of the Talmudic copyists in preparing a new scroll we begin to understand the absence of numerous ancient Old Testament MSS, and one must also be convinced of the reliability of the extant copies.
Following the Talmudists was the Massoretic Period between A.D. 500Ð900. Not sufficiently comfortable with the rigid Talmudic rules for transcribing Scripture, the Massoretes devised an incredibly complex system of safeguards against mistakes in transcription. Sir Fredric Kenyon says, "Besides recording varieties of reading, tradition, or conjecture, the Massoretes undertook a number of calculations which do not enter into the ordinary sphere of textual criticism. They numbered the verses, words, and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and the middle letter of each. They enumerated verses which contained all the letters of the alphabet, or a certain number of them; and so on. These trivialities, as we may rightly consider them, had yet the effect of securing minute attention to the precise transmission of the text; and they are but an excessive manifestation of a respect for the sacred Scriptures which in itself deserves nothing but praise. The Massoretes were indeed anxious than not one jot nor tittle, not one smallest letter nor one tiny part of a letter of the Law should pass away or be lost."  Indeed, for many years the oldest MSS of the Old Testament was a Massoretic copy dated to A.D. 916.
With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 the bibliographic evidence of the Old Testament received even more support. Prior to that discovery, the oldest Hebrew Old Testament MSS was dated to A.D. 916. That left a time interval of more than 1,300 years since the completion of the last book of Hebrew Scripture around 400 B.C. That fact cast serious doubts on the bibliographical reliability of the Hebrew Bible since it was no closer to the date of its autographs than many secular ancient MSS. Adding the weight of New Testament MSS that were dated so closely to the original autographs, there was real concern regarding the historicity of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is one the reason for the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Yet, from the archaeological record and the dating of Dead Sea Scroll MSS the Old Testament reliability is phenomenal. One of the scrolls discovered was a complete MS of the Hebrew text of Isaiah; it is dated at 125 B.C. by paleographers. Its internal evidence is such that since this single book is more than 1,000 years older than the previously extant MS it is incredible that there was only one word of three letters in question! Furthermore, as F. F. Bruce writes, "An incomplete scroll of Isaiah, found along with the other in the first Qumran cave, and conveniently distinguished as 'Isaiah B,' agrees even more closely with the A.D. 916 Massoretic text."  External support for the Old Testament continues to be unearthed in archeological finds of ancient libraries and other MSS.
I Trust the Bible?
Evidence for the Bible
Fulfilled Prophecy: Evidence for the Reliability of the Bible