In this short article, I set out some reasons why the Bible we have today is reliable.
When I mean reliable, I mean it is reliable as to:
- its contents being an accurate transmission of the original;
- its important factual claims.
When I mean factual claims, I distinguish factual claims from theological or spiritual claims. Factual claims are verifiable with evidence. Theological or spiritual claims are a matter of faith and belief. E.g. factual claims include that there lived a man named Jesus, Jesus had a following of Jewish disciples who worshipped him as God, Jesus was crucified, Jesus’ followers believed he rose again from death, Jesus’ followers were persecuted for their belief. Theological claims include that Jesus is the Son of God and will come again to earth to judge the world and to bring about the New Heaven and New Earth.
The three main issues to consider in determining reliability in this sense are:
- Bibliographical test: whether the manuscripts for the Bible are accurately transmitted.
- Internal coherence: whether the Bible is internally coherent as to its key claims.
- External coherence: whether the Bible is consistent with evidence external to it.
- There are significantly more copies of the Bible than copies of historical documents which secular historians consider reliable (compare >5,700 NT vs >1,700 Homer’s Iliad).
- The time gap between copies of the Bible and the original is significantly shorter than that for historical documents secular historians consider reliable (compare 40 years NT vs 200 years Thucydides’ History).
- Non-NT sources contain so many direct quotations of NT it would practically reconstitute the entire NT.
- Manuscripts for OT which date about a thousand years apart are about 95% identical, with the 5% being variations in spelling and obvious slips of the pen.
- On the bibliographical test, the Bible we have today is very likely a reliable copy of the original.
The bibliographical test examines the number of surviving manuscripts which record parts of the Bible, and the difference between the date of the autograph (original handwritten document) and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript.
Secular historians consider many ancient documents to have been accurately transmitted even though these manuscripts are much fewer than those for the Bible, and the time gaps between the date the autograph was penned and its earliest surviving copy are much longer than for the Bible. On that logic, the Bible would have to be, and indeed are, considered by historians to be reliable.
|Author||Work||Date Written||Earliest MSS||Time Gap||No. of MSS|
|Homer||Iliad||800 BC||c. 400 BC||400||1,757|
|Herodotus||History||480–425 BC||10th C||1,350||109|
|Sophocles||Plays||496–406 BC||3rd C BC||100-200||193|
|Caesar||Gallic Wars||100-44 BC||9th C||950||251|
|Livy||History of Rome||59 BC–AD 17||Early 5th C||400||150|
|Tacitus||Annals||AD 100||1st half:850, 2nd: 1050 (AD 1100)||750–950||2 + 31 15th C|
|Pliny, the Elder||Natural History||AD 49–79||5th C fragment: 1; Rem. 14–15th C||400 (750)||200|
|Thucydides||History||460–400 BC||3rd C BC (AD 900)||200 (1,350)||96|
|Demosthenes||Speeches||300 BC||Some fragments from 1 C. BC. (AD 1100)||1,100+ (1,400)||340|
|New Testament||AD 50–100||AD 130 (or less)||40||5,795|
Further, we have so many direct quotations from the New Testament included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by the early Church fathers (what is known as the Patristic Period, from 100 A.D. to the Middle Ages about 450 A.D. that if all other sources for the text of the New Testament were destroyed, these quotations alone would be enough to reconstruct practically the entire New Testament.
For the Old Testament, there are many very old portions of manuscripts of small parts of the Old Testament. For a long time, the earliest complete set is the Septuagint (LXX) which manuscript dates to the late 300 AD. The other is the Masoretic Text (MT) which dates to about 1000 AD.
Then, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Now there are 981 different manuscripts – discovered in 1946/47 and in 1956 – from 11 Qumran caves. The Dead Sea Scrolls are dated around 250 BC (with some manuscripts dating to 8th century BC) to 1st century AD.
Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer: “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (a.d. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.” (The Dead Sea Scrolls | Bible.org)
Many scholars, including non-Christian ones who just spend their academic careers comparing these manuscripts, observe that even though there’s more than a 1000 year gap between the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re almost identical.
- The Bible is amazingly internally consistent;
- In particular, many OT prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus and the NT;
- Alleged contradictions are in fact resolved;
- The gospels are independently consistent and remarkably reliable as historical documents.
The Bible is amazingly internally consistent
The Bible is amazingly consistent even though its contents are written by at least 40 different writers, in 66 books, across at least 1,500 years, and in both Near Eastern Ancient culture and the Greco-Roman culture of the first century.
Many OT prophecies fulfilled in Jesus & the NT
One remarkable thing is how so many prophecies in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Jesus, many of which are beyond human control, eg the place of his birth or what would happen to him
“One scholar, J. Barton Payne, has found as many as 574 verses in the Old Testament that somehow point to or describe or reference the coming Messiah. Alfred Edersheim found 456 Old Testament verses referring to the Messiah or His times. Conservatively, Jesus fulfilled at least 300 prophecies in His earthly ministry.”
Alleged contradictions are resolved
There are many attempts to raise contradictions within the Bible. But if you go through each, there are numerous scholarly and non-scholarly explanations to resolve any alleged contradiction. In fact, some of the explanations for the contradiction are so particularly contextualized to that historical setting that they actually prove the reliability and truth of the facts there.
I give you an example:
Mark 15:25 Jesus was crucified at the third hour VS. John 19:14-15 says the sixth hour.
Mark was using time as understood by the Jews. The day would start at sundown and be broken into segments. This would make the third hour to be about noon.
John was using Roman time. Ancient Roman sundials show that the daylight hours were divided into twelve equal hours. There were only two major segments, daytime and nighttime, with the hours beginning at sunrise and counted until sunset. So, the sixth hour in Roman time is noon. John’s audience was the Gentile church, so John uses Roman time throughout his gospel.
(Taken from this article.)
The gospels are independently consistent and reliable as historical documents
Another amazing thing about internal consistency is this. When we consider the four gospels, we know they’re independent accounts of Jesus. They’re not identical. If they were identical, then we can assume they conspired or fabricated their stories.
I remember this famous video I had to watch as a law student learning trial advocacy. This lawyer told the anecdote of a person telling a detailed story about a fire burning down a place at a court trial. The whole court, the judge, the jury was gripped. You know what the lawyer did? He said, tell it again. So the witness did. She said everything from head to tail in the exact same way. The lawyer said, tell it again. And the witness repeated it again in exact detail. The case was thrown out. It was clear that the witness had been prepared to just repeat that story.
What about the four gospels? While they are not identical, their differences do not present discrepancies or contradictions. Instead, they are complementary
Some scholars made this argument that there are surprising ‘undesigned coincidences’ in the four gospels. E.g. one gospel will mention a detail that happens to explain an issue of another gospel. We would not expect this if they were all copying one another.
One example is in Matthew 14:1–2. The writer Matthew wrote that Herod the tetrarch heard about Jesus and told his attendants that Jesus must be John the Baptist’s ghost coming back to haunt him (Herod had beheaded John the Baptist earlier). The issue is, how would the gospel writer have known about the conversations in Herod’s court?
In a separate gospel account, in Luke 8, Jesus is travelling with his disciples, and Luke lists some women who were going with him. In verse 3, he mentions “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward; Susanna; and many others who were supporting them from their possessions.” Luke 8 was nothing at all about Herod or what Herod said about Jesus.
Luke just happened to mention that one of the women who followed Jesus was the wife of an official in Herod’s court. Sure, it is a conjecture. But it’s a very plausible one. Because we know that in those days, that was how many eyewitness accounts were circulated.
These undesigned coincidences give strong weight to the truth and reliability claims of the Bible.
There’s a good book on the reliability of the gospels: Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter J Williams. Here’s a book summary:
And a video of the author’s lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi2_VNz_pKw
Key points on why the Gospels are reliable:
- Non-Christian sources from the NT period attest that there was a man named Jesus whose Jewish followers worshipped him as the one and only God; these followers were persecuted for their belief. (Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Flavius Josephus).
- By comparison with historical documents, four sources about a historical person is a lot of evidence; and the four documents were written very close to Jesus’ life.
- The gospel authors wrote accurately about the culture and place of the events they wrote about, including topology and geography. To fake such knowledge would be implausible without making mistakes, especially without the access to information we have today.
- There is a huge variety of places and locations mentioned in the Gospels, each mentioning slightly different sets of locations, even obscure ones.
- The Gospels did not only copy from each other, as there is unique information in each of the Gospels.
- Undesigned coincidences: certain details in the various Gospels corroborate each other but are extremely unlikely to have been planned due to the nature of the details. E.g. naming of 2 brothers, James and John as Sons of Thunder in Mark 3:17 and the contextual reason for the names in Luke 9:54.
- While each individual event or occurrence may be explained away, the simplest supposition is that all of those events happened because of Jesus.
- The Bible is consistent with external evidence like archaeological and non-Christian sources.
- Non-Christian independent historical sources corroborate the most important claims of the New Testament.
Quote from this article Patrick Zuckeran from Cru (zuckeranauthorityofthebible.pdf (cru.org)):
“… Another example is the story of Jericho recorded in the book of Joshua. For years skeptics thought the story of the falling walls of Jericho was a myth. However, in the 1930’s, Dr. John Garstang made a remarkable discovery. He states, “As to the main fact, then, there remains no doubt: the walls fell outwards so completely, the attackers would be able to clamber up and over the ruins of the city.” This is remarkable because city walls fall inward, not outward.
The March 5, 1990 issue of Time magazine featured an article called, “Score One For the Bible.” In it, archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon claimed Jericho’s walls had fallen suddenly. Many scholars feel this was caused by an earthquake which may also explain the damming of the Jordan. …”
To be clear, there are disputes about the dating of this incident. But the dispute as to dating is complicated because it involves a lot of assumptions about how we date incidents in the Bible vs dating archaeological findings. What is astounding, however, is that the archaeological findings cohere with the biblical account of what happened to the walls of Jericho.
For me, personally, another amazing example is Hezekiah’s Tunnel. I actually went to Israel and crawled in that tunnel. That tunnel is referred to in 2 Chronicles 32:2–4 and 2 Kings 20:20. It was apparently dug during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah to prepare Jerusalem for the imminent attack of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. Again, some people say actually the tunnel was built earlier. Which coheres with the Bible accounts too because the shaft that was used was probably built during King David’s time, which is much earlier.
Non-Christian independent historical sources confirm the life, death and claims of Jesus Christ, and that his disciples were martyred for believing that he died and rose again, and is worshipped as God. This corroborates the most important claims of the New Testament.
See this chapter summary from Can We Trust The Gospels? By Peter J Williams on this topic: http://www.ronaldjjwong.com/2022/04/16/can-we-trust-the-gospels-ch-1-non-christian-sources/
Here are some excerpts from the History.com article:
“… Josephus was a well-connected aristocrat and military leader in Palestine who served as a commander in Galilee … between 66 and 70 A.D. Although Josephus was not a follower of Jesus, “he was around when the early church was getting started, so he knew people who had seen and heard Jesus,” …
In one passage of Jewish Antiquities that recounts an unlawful execution, Josephus identifies the victim, James, as the “brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah.” (Messiah meaning Christ). … [Josephus writes another] lengthier passage about Jesus, known as the “Testimonium Flavianum,” which describes a man “who did surprising deeds” and was condemned to be crucified by Pilate. …
… in Annals of Imperial Rome, a first-century history of the Roman Empire written around 116 A.D. by the Roman senator and historian Tacitus. In chronicling the burning of Rome in 64 A.D., Tacitus mentions that Emperor Nero falsely blamed “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.”
… Shortly before Tacitus penned his account of Jesus, Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan that early Christians would “sing hymns to Christ as to a god.” Some scholars also believe Roman historian Suetonius references Jesus in noting that Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome who “were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”
How can I know that a belief system is true to stake my life and eternal destiny on? Not only mine but all the people around me whom I care about.
It must be somehow based on fact, coheres with reason, sits with my soul, and moves me in my spirit to faith, hope and love.
It cannot be merely an unprovable theory or philosophy. It cannot be only an unverifiable metaphysical claim.
That’s why for me, the reliability of the Bible and the verified core factual claims of Christianity are so important. Emotions may waver, doubts may set in. But facts and reason hold.
If the Bible is reliable in recording true events, it raises a challenge to all of us which we cannot dismiss.
It tells us, among other things, that (1) there is only one God who foretold long ago of a Saviour who would come; (2) Jesus is the Saviour who lived and died and rose again from death and whose followers worshipped as the one God; and (3) many prophecies foretold long who were fulfilled by Jesus.
If this is true, it confronts us with remarkable claims.
That the God spoken of in the Bible is probably the one God who is in control of human history.
That this God who came in the form of Jesus has power over life and death.
If this is true, then it must mean that this God holds the answer to life, the universe and everything.
This demands our attention and, if we believe to be true, our allegiance.