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Lesson 2: The Bible Is Unique in Its Historical Reliability

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Assuming that we believe in God and that he has chosen to reveal himself through the Bible, how do we know the Bible is still accurate? We no longer have the original manuscripts; therefore, how do we know that the copies we have today are accurate? After all, we have all seen or participated in the telephone game; in a classroom, the students form a circle and one person starts the game by whispering a simple phrase into another’s ear, and that person does the same to the next person, and so on, eventually circling the entire group and arriving back to the first person. By then, the phrase is quite different from the original version. Each time someone whispered the phrase into the ear of the next person, some bit of the original phrase was altered or left out, so that by the end, it was no longer an accurate copy of the original phrase. Isn’t that what happened with all the copies of the Bible over 100’s and 1000’s of years, leading us to wonder if the Bible we have today is incomparable to the original?

This argument has often been used to discredit the accuracy of today’s Bible. Obviously, there are many weaknesses with this comparison. (1) In the telephone game, people are only allowed to share a story once, without correcting it. The whole point of the game is to get something crazy at the end. Yet, even conveying stories by word of mouth can be transferred with great accuracy if care is given in the transmission, as with oral tradition. (2) What makes this comparison more unfair is the fact that it compares transferring the spoken word to transferring the written word. Transferring written words is remarkably more accurate than transferring spoken words.

With that said, the historical reliability of the Bible is one of the more unique aspects about the Bible. An article in the North American Review said this, in comparing the reliability of Scripture to Shakespeare’s writings:

It seems strange that the text of Shakespeare, which has been in existence less than 2 hundred and eighty years, should be far more uncertain and corrupt than that of the New Testament, now over 18 centuries old, during nearly fifteen of which it existed only in manuscript… With perhaps a dozen or twenty exceptions, the text of every verse in the New Testament may be said to be so far settled by general consent of scholars, that any dispute as to its readings must relate rather to the interpretation of the words than to any doubts respecting the words themselves. But in every one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays there are probably a hundred readings still in dispute, a large portion of which materially affects the meaning of the passages in which they occur.1

The historical reliability of Scripture is a mystery that attests to the sovereignty and power of God to preserve his words. To scholars it is, in fact, mind-boggling. The Bible is more historically reliable than any other ancient manuscript.

Manuscript Evidence

In considering the reliability of Scripture, we must consider that the oldest complete Hebrew Old Testaments date to around 1000 AD.2 This is very late, since the last Old Testament book, Malachi, was written around 433-424 BC.3 With such a great interval between the original and the copies, it would appear that critics could have a great argument against the Bible’s reliability. After all, how can we trust copies written 1400 years after the original? However, in 1947, an Arabian shepherd boy wandered into a cave in the Middle East and stumbled upon hundreds of manuscripts, which are the oldest Hebrew OT fragments ever discovered. These date back to around 250 BC to 68 AD and include not only portions of OT chapters but whole books.4 These manuscripts are called the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What makes this story even more amazing is the fact that those early copies are 95-99% the same as later copies of the OT. The 1-5% variation consist of spelling errors such as a “t” that wasn’t crossed or an “i” that wasn’t dotted, and small scribal additions. Their accuracy is virtually amazing and demonstrates how God has preserved the Bible. When considering the entire Bible and its historical reliability, as mentioned, no other ancient text can compare.

Historians use the bibliographical test to evaluate the manuscript reliability of an ancient copy of literature in comparison to the missing original.5 The test uses two standards:

  1. the time interval between the original and the earliest copy
  2. the number of copies available

For instance, of all ancient books (other than the Bible), the most historically reliable according to textual criticism is the Iliad. It was written around 750 BC yet the earliest copies (over 1,900 exist) date from 415 B.C. This makes a time gap of approximately 335 years. Consider some other ancient books:

  • Herodotus—Histories, written around 425 BC, earliest copies from 150-50 BC, 275-375-year time gap, with 106 existing copies
  • Caesar—Gallic Wars, written around 50 BC, earliest copies from 900 AD, 950-year time gap, with around 261 existing copies
  • Pliny—Natural History, written around 77 AD, earliest copies from 500 AD, 423-year time gap, with around 200 existing copies
  • Tacitus—Annals, written around 100 AD, earliest copies from 850 AD, 750-year time gap, with 36 existing copies6

In considering the New Testament alone, there are books with a time gap of 50–150 years. Within a time-frame of 225 years, there are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts. Within 400 years, there are over 19,000 manuscripts in Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic.7 There are over 24,000 manuscripts of the NT—all within 95-99% accuracy of each other. The OT has over 42,000 manuscripts.8 The Bible, as a whole, has more manuscript evidence than any ten pieces of ancient literature combined. Moreover, even if we did not have any ancient New Testament manuscripts, it was so often quoted by ancient writers that by simply combining those excerpts, the entire NT can be pieced together.9

The Bible is so accurate in comparison to ancient literature that if one doubts the historical reliability of Scripture, they must also doubt that of the classics and therefore almost all we know about ancient history.10 The quotes of these two authors are helpful in considering this reality: Bible scholar Daniel Wallace said, “If we have doubts about what the autographic NT said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author.”11 Likewise, Glenny Edwards said, “No one questions the authenticity of the historical books of antiquity because we do not possess the original copies. Yet we have far fewer manuscripts of these works than we possess of the NT.”12

Verification Of Internal Testimony

Another test of historical reliability is the verification of internal testimony by outside sources.13 As with the manuscript evidence test, the Bible passes this one in stellar fashion as well. Not all historical details in Scripture can be verified, but its history is verifiable where it can be checked, including when Scripture discusses miracles. For example, ancient Babylonian records describe a world-wide flood in accordance with Genesis 6-8, and a confusion of language, which fits the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11).14 Archaeological findings from the site where Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to have been located, display evidence of a fiery and violent destruction in accordance with Genesis 19. “Samples from the site show that an extremely hot, explosive event leveled” the cities. Many archaeologists believe it was hit by a meteor.15 In the New Testament, cities, political officials, and events have been repeatedly affirmed by historical findings. Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, “has been described as a first-rate historian for his attention to detail and accurate reporting.”16 Sir William Ramsay said this:

Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians… Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.17

When considering the miracles of Christ, they have strong attestation outside the Bible as well, even by those who didn’t believe he was the Jewish messiah. In the Babylonian Talmud (AD 500), it says that Christ “practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”18 Josephus (AD 30-100), an ancient Jewish historian, said Christ did “startling deeds” and gained a following.19 Altogether, historical findings continue to increasingly prove the reliability of Scripture.

The Bible’s historical reliability simply confirms what Scripture teaches about itself—that it is true (Ps 119:160), perfect (Ps 19:7), imperishable and enduring (1 Pet 1:23). God has truly preserved his Word both from corruption and error. It is unique in comparison to all of literature.

Reflection

  1. In the reading, what aspect of the Bible’s historical reliability stood out most to you and why?
  2. How is the telephone game an incompatible comparison to the quality and integrity of Scripture’s transmission?
  3. What two standards are used in evaluating an ancient manuscript’s accuracy with its original? How does the Bible measure up in comparison to other ancient manuscripts?
  4. Why is it so important for outside sources to verify the internal testimony of an ancient document? In the reading, share which example of outside sources used to verify the testimony of Scripture stood out most to you and why.
  5. What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

BTG Publishing all rights reserved.


1 McDowell, Josh, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Here’s Life Publisher, San Bernardino, Ca, 1979.

2 Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/what-is-the-oldest-hebrew-bible/

3 MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Handbook. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

4 Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/what-is-the-oldest-hebrew-bible/

5 Accessed 2/11/2020 from https://www.equip.org/articles/the-bibliographical-test-updated/

6 Number of ancient copies and some other classic book details from McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict

7 McDowell, Josh. The Unshakeable Truth (p. 98). Harvest House Publishers.

8 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 53). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

9 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 63). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

10 Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-reliable.html

11 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 55). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

12 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 55). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

13 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 76). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

14 Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-reliable.html

15 Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2018/12/04/new-science-suggests-biblical-city-of-sodom-was-smote-by-an-exploding-meteor/#666ea5465c67

16 Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-reliable.html

17 McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 87). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

18 The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. Accessed 9/2/19, as originally cited on http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/talmud.html

19 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.3. As quoted from Powell, Mark. Jesus as a Figure in History, Westminster John Knox Press, London, 1998 (pg 33).

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Bibliology (The Written Word)

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