Answering Questions about the Bible: Is the Book We Have Today Reliable?

28 Sep

Being caught off-guard is always uncomfortable and, even more so when the thing that catches us off guard is a question concerning the history, morality, or logical validity of our own beliefs!  While enquiries of this nature can be a bit intimidating at times, they don’t need to be.  That is why, for the next few weeks, we will be taking a look at some basic questions about the Bible that are bound to come up as you seek to share the Good News of the Gospel with your friends… and some answers that will help you respond to those questions with confidence.

While people have many questions about the Bible (the book which we, as Christians, believe contains the complete, accurate, and inerrant Word of God by which we ought to live our lives today), one of the most common is whether the book, itself, is reliable.  After all, the Christian Scriptures were written thousands of years ago and have passed through many hands since that time.  With no original copies available to us, can we really be certain that the words we read today are the same as those read by the ancient Israelites or the Apostles in the early Church?

In order to answer this question, we need to begin with a bit of history.  The Bible was originally composed in three different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic (a cross between Persian and Hebrew which resulted from the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews), and Greek.  While carbon dating has shown us that the manuscripts found in these languages are in no way old enough to be the originals, we can still date many of these copies to within 50-250 hundred years of their composition – a relatively short period when compared to other ancient documents!

Furthermore, “… the latest (as of August 1998) count of Greek MSS is as follows: 109 papyri, 307 uncials, 2,860 miniscules, and 2,410 lectionaries, for a total of 5,686.” (McDowell, 1999)  That’s thousands more copies than have been located for any other piece of ancient literature including Homer’s Iliad, the works of Plato, or Shakespeare’s plays – making the Bible the single best attested document in ancient history!

The Old Testament  Hebrew scribes were meticulous people and a scribe’s early years were wholly dedicated to preparing him for the sacred task of copying of the Jewish scripture.  Because the Israelites revered their texts, it was important that those who made new copies be careful to copy them accurately.  “The Talmud reveals the scrupulous rules Jewish scribes followed, including the counting of all the letters and lines to make sure they matched.” (Geisler, 2002)  No word was to be written from memory and the slightest blemish on the page was sufficient to warrant the complete destruction of the entire document!  While some may argue that changes were made to these texts early on, thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can be certain that the copies we have today are the same as those in use at least 200 years before Jesus walked the earth.

Why is this important?  Because, if nothing else, we can demonstrate that the prophesies pertaining to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (specifically those contained within the book of Isaiah) were not tampered with after His death.  No corrections were made to the text in order to make Him appear to be something which He was not or to lend credibility to the argument that these texts were reliable in the first place.

The New Testament  While the New Testament was not copied with such great care, the speed of its distribution throughout the Roman world, as well as the evidence of living witnesses (1 John 1:1, 2 Peter 1:16) are enough to preclude any “scribal tampering”.  If anyone had attempted to alter the doctrinal content of these books, they would have come up against both the difficulty of obtaining and editing each existing copy of the volumes as well as overwhelming personal testimonies to the error of these “corrections”.  Given the force with which early Christianity swept the world and the apparent threat which it posed to both the Jews and the Romans (the major power at the time), attempts to “rewrite” history would have been refuted in writing by the opposition.

Instead, we find that the writings of these very parties who sought to extinguish Christianity, actually go so far as to verify the key events which surrounded the birth and spread of the faith, as well as its teachings!  These writers, including Tacitus, a first century Roman; Suetonius (A.D. 117-138); Josephus, the famed Jewish historian (A. D. 37-100); Thallus (A. D. 52); Pliny the Younger (A. D. 112); Emperor Trajan (cir. 112); the Jewish Talmud (A. D. 70-200); and many others, corroborate (agree with) the New Testament text.  From these writings, we know that the accounts of Christ’s ministry, His miracles, His death on a cross, and the disappearance of His body are all factual.

It is true that there are some differences between New Testament manuscripts, however most of these are errors in spelling or “variant readings” in which the differences are purely grammatical.  Furthermore, “Textual scholars Westcott and Hort estimated that only one in sixty of these variants has significance. This would leave a text 98.33 percent pure. Philip Schaff calculated that, of the 150,000 variants known in his day, only 400 changed the meaning of the passage, only fifty were of real significance…” (Geisler N. L., 1999)  Due to the unusually large number of manuscripts currently available to us, it is fairly easy to determine which of these variants are aberrations and which accurately convey the thoughts of the original texts.

In the end, the differences do more to prove the reliability of our modern text than they do to disprove it.  Most certainly, anyone who sought to “recreate” these documents to a specified standard would have edited out the existing textual differences in order to create more uniformity within the manuscript tradition.

The result is that these texts, in combination with external evidence from non-Christian and anti-Christian writers, are sufficient to suggest that the New Testament we have today is consistent with the one that was used by the early Church.

 While Christians and secular scholars may differ in how they interpret and respond to these texts, we may rationally conclude that today’s copies are (at very least) reasonably faithful to the originals and are an accurate reflection of Jewish teaching at the time of Christ and Christian teaching immediately following.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how Christians have traditionally determined which books should be included as Scripture and which shouldn’t.  Meanwhile, there are plenty of other excellent arguments for the reliability of the Bible, so feel free to share the ones which have served you best in the comment box below!

Works Cited

Geisler, N. (2002). Systematic Theology, Volume One. Bethany House.

Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

McDowell, J. (1999). The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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4 Responses to “Answering Questions about the Bible: Is the Book We Have Today Reliable?”

  1. Tom Bowen September 28, 2012 at 08:25 #

    I love this piece. It was a puzzle to me for years why the God of heaven would choose to communicate to his worshippers this way…so cryptic…so ancient. But the more I dug, the more treasure I found…getting to know Him. I figured it out, I think. If he just woke us all up and gave us all the answers, how would he know whether or not we loved Him enough to search for Him. Love from humans with free will is the only thing God doesn’t have unless we give it to him. It’s why He made us. To see what we would do.

  2. NotAScientist September 28, 2012 at 09:24 #

    “The result is that these texts, in combination with external evidence from non-Christian and anti-Christian writers, are sufficient to suggest that the New Testament we have today is consistent with the one that was used by the early Church.”

    If this is true…why does it matter?

    Written reports of people claiming to have been abducted by aliens are ‘reliable’ in the same way. But that in no way implies anything about the claims that are written about.

    • acgheen September 28, 2012 at 09:39 #

      Thanks for your reply! You are absolutely correct. Simply proving that the account is accurate or faithful to the original is not sufficient to validate its claims.

      As to your question regarding why it matters if the New Testament is a faithful account, the answer is that verifying the reliability of ANY text is the first step towards determining whether its truth claims ought to be taken seriously. For example, most of us would automatically discard the “eye-witness” account of someone who wasn’t born until 400 years after an event took place (as in the case with the gnostic gospels). We would, however, take a moment to consider the truth value of an account of an actual eye-witness. By establishing that the New Testament we have today is an accurate representation of the original, we are now in a position to consider its claims (truthful or otherwise) – just as we would the claims of someone who was an established witness of a crime.

  3. michael_mooney October 9, 2012 at 07:46 #

    Perhaps the greatest living witness to the claims of the Bible is the Church itself. Once it is established the the text is authentic, which it has been, it’s claims (which after all, are the heart of matter), can not only be validated, but the Living Church, the Body of Christ on earth is a powerful witness to and demonstration of it’s claims – ‘The Risen Christ-the risen people’!
    There are countless, and I mean countless, life stories that defy natural explanation and point to a supernatural God. Also, the martyrdom of so many speaks thunderingly into a world of selfishness and pride. The evidence for both the authenticity and validity of it’s claims is clear – it has proven it’self beyond all reasonable doubt. Therefore whatever refutation remains is, in this writer’s view, unreasonable – to say the least.

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