Can I Trust the Bible?
by Rabbi Glenn Harris
Most people approach history textbooks somewhat uncritically, accepting what they read as accurate and authoritative. And why not? History books place no moral demands on us (not even to learn from history!). However, when a book makes absolute moral and theological assertions (as the Bible does), people become uncomfortable. Faced with demand for an ethical commitment (and having a natural aversion to authority), some people feign intellectual objections, claiming alleged contradictions in the Bible, and generally questioning its reliability. Consciously or unconsciously the reasoning is: if the Bible can be discredited, or at least relegated to the realm of mythology, its demands will have been trivialized. Thus we have the modern battle over the reliability of the Bible. This brief paper is intended to inform and encourage the reader as to the general integrity and reliability of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
Let me preface this paper with a summons to intellectual integrity in the form of a question. If it can be demonstrated that sufficient evidence exists (i.e., textual, historical, archaeological) to authenticate the Bible as a thoroughly reliable historical document, will you then accept its ethical and moral imperatives? If not, then don’t trouble yourself about reading this paper. Yours isn’t an intellectual problem, but rather a volitional problem – a matter of the will. If, however, you are willing to follow the truth, no matter where it leads, then by all mean, read on.
I. The Bible is a Unique Book
A. The Bible is unique in its continuity
Imagine questioning forty different people on their religious views: people from every socio-economic background …
(ranging from extreme poverty to immense wealth)
in nearly every walk of life …
(kings and paupers, statesmen and fishermen, poets and physicians)
on three separate continents …
(Asia, Africa, and Europe)
in three different languages …
(Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic)
taking several forms …
(poetry, history, civil and criminal law, ethics, didactic, parable, biography, prophecy, personal correspondence …)
And spanning a period of nearly 1,500 years!
And if you asked them to put their observations, thoughts and feelings about God and about ultimate reality into writing what kind of book do you suppose you’d end up with? Would they all agree? Hardly. You’d probably wind up with a mishmash. Well, the Biblical writers represent exactly this societal, linguistic, cultural and geographic diversity, and yet there is remarkable harmony and both thematic and statistical consistency throughout the book! At the very least, it must be admitted that the Bible is a unique book.
B. The Bible is unique in its survival
The Bible, compared with other ancient writings, has more manuscript evidence than any 10 pieces of classical literature combined …
With regard to the New Testament books, John Warwick Montgomery stated:
“… to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.” 1
Bernard Ramm speaks of the accuracy and number of Biblical manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures:
“Jews preserved it as no other manuscript has ever been preserved. With their massora they kept tabs on every letter, syllable, word and paragraph. They had special classes of men within their culture whose sole duty was to preserve and transmit these documents with practically perfect fidelity … who ever counted the letters, syllables and words of Plato or Aristotle? Cicero or Seneca?” 2
II. We Have an Authentic, Reliable Biblical Text
A. By means of bibliographical and internal criteria
The historical reliability of the Bible should be tested by the same criteria that all historical documents are tested. It breaks down to these three factors:
- The number of existing manuscripts
- The dating of the manuscripts
- The proportion of variant readings
1. The number of existing manuscripts
There are more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, over 10,000 in Latin and over 9,300 other early versions totaling 24,000+ manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today, ranking it first in manuscript evidence.
Second place goes to The Iliad, by Homer … with 643 surviving manuscripts.
2. The dating of the manuscripts
The New Testament autographs date to between 40-100 A.D. Until 1995, the earliest extant manuscripts dated to the fourth century (a 250-300 year difference). Norman Geisler states that the average gap between an original composition and the earliest available copy is over 1,000 years for other works of antiquity.
(handout reprints — Dr. Carsten Thiede/1st century papyrus fragments of Matthew)
The late Sir Frederick Kenyon, orientalist, director and principal librarian of the British Museum wrote:
“This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1,400 years after the poet’s death.” 3
Kenyon, in The Bible and Archaeology continues:
“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” 4
Among ancient Greek/Latin literature, The Iliad ranks next to the New Testament in possessing the greatest amount of manuscript testimony.
So let’s compare them:
Homer (The Iliad)
3. Variant readings
Through the proper application of textual criticism, comparing all the available manuscripts with one another, we are able to confidently reconstruct the original reading. Let’s briefly compare the numbers on variant readings. The New Testament contains approximately 20,000 lines, of which 40 lines are in question. This equals .5% (one half of one percent).
The Iliad contains approximately 15,600 lines, of which 764 lines are in question. This equals five percent. That’s ten times more variants than the New Testament in a document which is only three-quarters its length. The sheer number of extant NT manuscripts we possess narrows tremendously the margin of doubt on the correct reading of the original documents (known as autographs).
Of the 0.5% of the New Testament variant readings, only one eighth of those amount to anything more than a stylistic difference or misspelling.
An example of a fairly typical variant reading:
|MSS. 1||Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.|
|MSS. 2||Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.|
|MSS. 3||Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whold world.|
|MSS. 4||Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.|
|MSS. 5||Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.|
Many of these variants involve nothing more than a missing letter in a word, a misspelling, or a reversal of the order of two words (as seen above in #2). Some may involve the absence of a word; but of all the variants in the NT, it should be noted that only about 50 have any real significance, and that not one essential point of Christian doctrine rests upon a disputed reading. For more than 99% of them, we have been able to reconstruct the biblical text with tremendous certainty.
B. The archaeological/external evidence
1. Evidence from archaeology
The Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered in 1947, included an ancient copy of the scroll of Isaiah. This scroll, dating to approximately 100 B.C. was found to be identical to the Modern Hebrew Bible in over ninety five percent of the text. The remaining five percent consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen or variations in spelling.
Prior to that discovery, the earliest manuscript of Isaiah was the Masoretic Text, dating to 900 A.D. Realize, then, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls moved the dating back more than a thousand years! And that without any appreciable change in the text.
Nelson Glueck, renowned Jewish archaeologist, wrote:
“It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.” 5
William F. Albright, one of the world’s most renowned archaeologists, stated:
“There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.” 6
And again …
“The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phrases of which still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.” 7
The late Millar Burrows, renowned Professor of Archaeology at Yale University, exposed the cause of persistent unbelief:
“The excessive skepticism of many liberal theologians stems not from a careful evaluation of the available data, but from an enormous predisposition against the supernatural.” 8
2. Evidence from early Christian writers
J. Harold Greenlee, Professor of New Testament Greek at Oral Roberts University, wrote that the quotations of the Scripture in the works of the early Christian writers,
“… are so extensive that the New Testament could virtually be reconstructed from them without the use of New Testament manuscripts.” 9
This was later confirmed by Sir David Dalyrimple. All but eleven verses of the New Testament are found in the works of second and third century writers. In addition to the many thousands of NT manuscripts, there are over 86,000 quotations of the NT in the early church fathers, and quotations in thousands of early lectionaries (worship books).
3. Evidence from extra-Biblical authors
- Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, III. 39) referring to Mark
- Papias (c. 130 AD) refers to Matthew’s gospel
- Irenaeus (c. 180 AD) refers to the four gospels and Matthew
II. We Have an Authentic, Reliable Biblical Text
Let us state again that, in spite of having come under attack a century and a half ago as an unreliable historical record, over the past fifty to seventy five years, the biblical narrative has been consistently corroborated by archaeological discoveries (remember, too, that a century and a half ago the field of archaeology had scarcely emerged).
Archaeologist Joseph Free has said, “Archaeology has confirmed countless passages which had been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contrary to known facts.” 10
One hundred fifty years to two hundred years ago it became academically fashionable to say that Moses could not have authored the five books of the Torah, as claimed, because it was thought that legal codes of that order simply didn’t exist. These arguments persisted by some even into the mid-20th century. On that logic they posited that several different individuals, living many centuries later, wrote the Torah and ascribed it to Moses. Archaeology proved this “Documentary Hypothesis” wrong through the more recent discoveries of numerous legal codes in some cases predating even the Patriarchal period, such as the Hammurabi Code (c. 1700 B.C.), the Lipit-Ishtar Code (c. 1860 B.C.) and the Laws of Eshunna (c. 1950 B.C.).
Prior to 1906 critics of biblical historicity argued that the Bible’s descriptions of the Hittite Empire were later insertions, since they were certain the Hittite Empire didn’t exist, owing to lack of physical evidence for it. But in 1906 archaeologists unearthed the Hittite capital and in the years following excavated what is now known to have been a massive and very prominent Hittite civilization.
More recently, liberal scholars, intent on maintaining their criticism of the Bible, argued that the Gospel of John could not have been written by John, but must have come much later, owing to factors such as:
- The use of imagery they presupposed to be of later Gnostic influence (i.e., terms such as “sons of light” and “sons of darkness”).
- Allegedly inaccurate historical details (such as a 5th portico at the pool of Bethesda [cf. John 5:2] whereas every Judean pool excavated had just four porticoes).
Discoveries, however, of texts paralleling and even pre-dating the NT manuscripts (chiefly at Qumran) evidenced the very same apocalyptic terminology in contemporary Jewish writings. And approximately eight years ago archaeologists discovered underneath what they had previously thought was the earliest level at the site of Bethesda an older mikveh (pool) which had a fifth portico transecting it! One would hope that at some point the critics would concede the historical reliability of the biblical narrative.
This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of sources. In fact, it’s just “the tip of the iceberg”. But as you can see, there really is a remarkable body of evidence supporting the reliability of the Bible as we have it in English today. I hope this will give the reader a sense of confidence that the Bible, as it has come down to us, is an altogether historically reliable record. This is critical, because if it were unreliable in that matter, we certainly could take the next step and consider its theological reliability. However, as we warned at the outset, the Bible does contains moral imperatives. Thus it seems the real question now is not whether the Bible is trustworthy, but whether you are willing to read it, consider its contents and claims, and wrestle with its moral implications. You could choose to look the other way and hope later to plead ignorance. Instead, I recommend you take the courageous approach of reading the Scriptures in the pursuit of truth.
Quotations Taken From:
Evidence that Demands a Verdict: historical evidences for the Christian faith
Compiled by Josh McDowell, 1972, 1979 Here’s Life Publishers, Inc.
P.O. Box 1576, San Bernadino, CA 92402, fifteenth printing
- Montgomery, John W. History and Christianity.
Intervarsity Press Downers Grove, IL, 1971, p. 29.
- Ramm, Bernard. Can I Trust My Old Testament?
The Kings Business, Feb., 1949 pp. 230, 231.
- Kenyon, Frederick G. Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.
MacMillan and Co., London, 1901, p. 4.
- Kenyon, Frederick G. The Bible and Archaeology.
Harper & Row, New York, 1940, p. 288.
- Glueck, Nelson. Rivers in the Desert: History of Negev.
Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1969, p. 176.
- Albright, William Foxwell. Archaeology and the Religions of Israel.
Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1956, p. 176.
- Albright, William Foxwell. The Archaeology of Palestine.
Pelican Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1960, p. 127, 128.
- Burrows, Millar. What Mean These Stones?
Meridian Books, New York, NY, 1956, p. 176.
- Greenlee, J. Harold. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1964, p. 54.
- Free, Joseph. Archaeology and Bible History.
Scripture Press, Wheaton, IL, 1969, pg. 1
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