Lesson 2: The Reliability of the Bible

Lesson 2: The Reliability of the Bible

One of the purposes of apologetics is to present a rational basis for Christian faith. We want to demonstrate that Christianity is reasonable, logical and sensible. Although we’ve already shown that Christianity does not rest on man’s intellectual ability to prove the claims of the Bible, it is beneficial to examine some of the evidence that supports Christianity. In this lesson we’ll endeavor to show the legitimacy of Christianity’s foundational documents and basic claims.

Christianity stands or falls with the Bible. Like the old song says, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” If the Bible is not trustworthy, then faith based upon the Bible is empty and absurd. If one could find genuine, unquestionable errors and/or contradictions in the Bible, Christianity would come crumbling down. Hence, Christian apologists have for centuries been defending the Bible against the attacks of critics and skeptics. In today’s lesson we’ll discuss why faith in the record of Scripture is not misplaced.


Scripture’s Doctrine of Scripture

What does the Bible say about itself? It claims to be God’s book, originating from the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16). The Bible is God’s self-witness; it is God speaking to us. The words “Thus saith the LORD” occur 279 times in the OT. There is no higher authority, no greater ground of certainty than that established as the Holy Spirit enables Christians to believe, understand and use the Scriptures rightly.

Difficulties of the Apologetic Task

The primary source of our knowledge of the events we are concerned about are the Scriptures themselves. While there is some extra-biblical information available, it does not add much to our knowledge of the events we are interested in. Thus we must ask the question, “Are the accounts recorded in the Bible worthy of belief?”

From the outset we should admit that proving that something actually occurred in history is not as easy as one might think. If there’s doubt as to what occurred a few years or a few centuries ago, imagine trying to prove that something happened 2,000 or even 3,000 years ago! Today we can go back to newspaper or TV reports to research an event, but in biblical times such technologies did not exist. The events of the Bible occurred before the invention of the printing press, so the texts we have are copies of hand-written documents. Small errors can creep into such texts over time as one copy is made from another. Some copyists and translators were more careful than others, so there are some texts that are admittedly less reliable than others. These are just a few of the challenges facing those who seek to defend the reliability of the Bible. However, none of these difficulties make our task impossible.

Some people argue that the details of the biblical stories are not very important as long as the general teaching comes through. Errors of historical or geographical nature are not all that important, they suggest. However, if the Bible is in error on areas that we can check (like dates and locations), then how do we know that it’s not wrong concerning doctrine? The Bible claims to be God’s Word, not just a newspaper account or a historical record. If it’s truly inspired, we should expect it to be perfect in all that it affirms. And that’s exactly what we find—it’s perfectly reliable.

The Reliability of OT History

The OT does not read like a standard history book—it’s full of miraculous stories. God walks on earth and interacts with man, angels appear, children are born to old people, fire falls from the sky, prophets foretell events, a cloud leads a nation through the wilderness, iron floats, and a host of other fascinating events are recorded in the pages of the OT. There are those who dismiss such accounts immediately simply because they don’t believe such miraculous events could have happened. Thus, even if archaeology and related sciences could vouch for all the ordinary data contained in the OT (e.g., dates, places, reigns of kings, etc.), it could say nothing about such miraculous events. They are unverifiable. The only reason we know they happened is that those who saw them happen recorded them.

Before tackling the issue of the historical accuracy of the OT accounts, one must first decide upon the issues of the existence of God, revelation and the possibility of miracles. If one admits that God could exist and that He could intervene in the normal flow of events with a miracle, then the contents of the OT are not so ridiculous after all. On the other hand, if one is dead-set against the possibility of miracles, then he’ll find much to ridicule in the OT.1

With this backdrop, we can still make a good case for the accuracy of the OT account. Here are some factors that argue for the historical accuracy of the OT:2

  1. The text of the Hebrew OT has been preserved with an accuracy unparalleled in any other Near-East literature. The Jews have always held Scripture in very high regard and were exceedingly careful to preserve their texts.

A group of scribes known as the Massoretes (500-900 AD) carefully copied and cared for the Hebrew Bible. They were so meticulous in their work that they successfully transmitted the text with marvelous accuracy. [Read Evidence p. 56]

An example of how well the OT text was preserved over the years is found among the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). Prior to the finding of the DSS, the oldest copy of Isaiah available dated back to about 900 AD. In the DSS was a copy of Isaiah from about 150 BC. Looking at the two copies, scholars found only minor differences, mostly matters of spelling, word order, and word use. The text had been preserved very faithfully during that entire time period (about 1,000 years). This strongly suggests a very careful and faithful preservation work over the years that separate the two copies. And if this is true of Isaiah, it’s likely true of the rest of the OT books.

  1. Archaeology largely supports biblical dates. Evidence supports the age and origin of Abraham, Moses and many of the other figures in the OT. One scholar asserts that “no archaeological discovery has ever [contradicted] a biblical reference.”3

  2. There are significant similarities between the biblical accounts and the findings of archaeology regarding the social and political patterns of the times. For example, Babylonian legal documents found in 1925 near the Tigris River reflect and confirm the practices mentioned in the Bible.

  3. Various people groups mentioned in the OT, once regarded by skeptics as legendary, have been discovered. A good example of this is the Hittite nation. Other than in the Bible, no evidence was found for them until scholars found a huge library full of Hittite cultural items.

  4. The Assyrian and Hittite law codes prove that OT laws are had counterparts in other Near Eastern cultures.

  5. Excavations of ancient sites have proven that the other religions mentioned in the OT did exist and that some of their rituals and practices were similar to those the Israelites practiced.

  6. The story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan and settlement there is confirmed by archaeology. Evidence of the violent destruction of Canaanite cities squares with the OT record of the times.

  7. Close parallels exist between the covenants (agreements or treaties) God made with Abraham and those secular kings made with their subjects.

While skeptics and critics would likely take issue with some of the above points, the more scholars dig around and explore in the Middle East, the more evidence comes to light supporting the OT record of events. Archaeology disproves many alleged biblical errors and inaccuracies.

New Testament Accuracy

Perhaps more important to Christians is the issue of how accurate and reliable the text of the NT is. The following facts strongly suggest that the text of the NT is very reliable and accurate.

  1. A large amount of manuscript evidence exists supporting the NT.

  • There are about 5,600 Greek manuscripts of the NT in existence today. In contrast to this, other books from biblical times may be recorded in only a few manuscripts (MSS) or even a few scraps of MSS. Further, the oldest of these MSS may come from a time many hundreds of years after the book was originally written.4 The oldest NT documents come from a time only 50 years or so after the autographs. So there are no other books like the NT. No other ancient books have so much high quality MSS evidence to back up their claims.

  • There are many versions of the NT in other languages. The NT was translated into many languages, such as Latin, Syriac and Egyptian (a.k.a. Coptic). These are important because they were translated from the Greek very early on and likely reflect an early (and thus more likely accurate) reading of the Greek.

  • The NT has also been preserved in the form of quotations in other works. Some of these writings contain lengthy quotations from the Bible. These are important because they go back to an early form of the Greek NT.

  1. Because of the hand-copying process, slight errors were inserted into the text. However, such errors are generally small and insignificant, and can be identified by comparing several texts to each other. And even though there are differences between the various families of Greek MSS, these differences (called variants) are generally minor and do not demand any changes in doctrine or practice. No essential teaching of the NT is greatly affected by any copying errors or variations from one text to another.

  2. This historical accuracy of the NT is verifiable. One does not find historical errors in the text of the Bible.

  • Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, was a very careful and accurate historian. He includes a great deal of secular history in his accounts—rulers, dates, places, customs and the like (e.g., Luke 3:1-2). Luke even is able to accurately record the correct titles of the many Roman government officials mentioned in his books, no small feat in itself. Archaeology has repeatedly vindicated Luke’s historical accounts, so that Luke is now considered among the best ancient historians ever.

  • Archaeology has confirmed many details from the pages of the NT. Entire books have been written on how archaeology supports NT claims.

  • Archaeologists found an inscription warning Gentiles not to enter certain sections of the Temple area. This temple barrier was undoubtedly the source of Paul’s statement about the “middle wall of partition” which separated Jews and Gentiles at the Temple (Eph 2:14).

  • An inscription by Erastus, the city treasurer in Corinth who Paul mentioned (Rom 16:23) was uncovered in 1929.

  • Scholars found the amphitheater where the riot caused by Demetrius took place (Acts 19:23-41).

  • Even ancient coins confirm the details related in the NT.

  • The Pavement, which the Jews called Gabbatha, was buried for centuries and discovered only recently.

  • The Pool of Bethesda, which had no record except in the NT, has been positively identified.

  • The ossuary (burial box) of the high priest Caiaphas has been found.

[Teacher: For more info on the reliability of the OT and NT texts, see the two articles in the Additional Material at the end of this curriculum.]

Conclusion: We don’t ultimately believe the Bible because of the many proofs and evidences that it is an accurate, reliable book. We believe because God gives us the gift of faith. Nevertheless, the Bible is historically verifiable, accurate and trustworthy. Whether one examines the Bible’s historical, archaeological or manuscript evidences, he will find nothing to discredit the Bible’s claims. Such an examination in fact lends great credibility to the Bible.

Discussion:

  1. What does the Bible claim about itself? That it is the word of God, inspired by God.

  2. Does archaeology generally support or disprove the Bible? By far it supports the Bible. Some secular scholars certainly allege that history contradicts some of the biblical account. But no one has ever come up with a certifiable, genuine contradiction between history/archaeology and the Bible.

  3. How is the manuscript evidence of the NT different from other books from the same period? There’s much more and much earlier support for the NT than any other book of like age.

  4. What are the main lines of evidence supporting the validity of the NT? Historical accuracy, archaeological accuracy and manuscript evidence.

1 In a future lesson we’ll discuss the possibility of miracles.

2 From Can I Trust the Bible? p. 135f.

3 Evidence, p. 65, quoting archaeologist Nelson Glueck. Biblical scholars recognize that there are still problems harmonizing archaeology with the Biblical account, but none so serious as to bring into question the accuracy of the Bible.

4 For example, Caesar’s famous book Gallic War, written about 50 years before Christ, is found in only 9 or 10 MSS, none of which is older than the ninth century AD. So nearly a thousand years separate the original writing and the oldest copies now available.

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