The Evidence For the Reliability of Scripture
Your word, O LORD, is eternal, it stands firm.
In the last post, we talked about what truth is and whether we can know it. We determined that it does indeed exist and can be known. When it comes to Christianity and the Bible, what are some ways we can be certain the Word of God is accurate? How can we know that what we are reading wasn't just made up or changed throughout the centuries? In short, what is the evidence?
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BELIEF AND KNOWLEDGE
Before we look at the evidence, let's review the difference between knowledge and belief. Knowledge can be defined as "properly justified true belief."(1) For example, when a person says they believe the bridge is safe to cross, the only way to know if this is true is for someone to cross it and "properly justify" whether it is safe or not safe. You can believe something to be true and be wrong. It happens all the time. We talked about when what is said corresponds with what is there, one can know, like saying the chair is in the next room and proving it by going to the next room and finding the chair.
You can't know something unless you first believe it, but you can believe something (like the bridge is safe to cross) and not know it. If the person crosses the bridge and it collapses, the belief was false...the belief was not based on knowledge.
MORE MANUSCRIPTS FOR THE NEW TESTAMENT
Below is a chart of some early manuscripts. Notice when they were written, and how much time lapsed before the earliest copy. Now, look at how many copies have been found. There are many more copies of the New Testament than of any of the other works. In fact, there are no works that come anywhere close to the New Testament when it comes to the number of manuscripts we have. Not even a secular historian would disagree that the amount of manuscript copies we have for the New Testament is out of the ordinary.
Work Written Earliest Copy Time Lapse Copies Found
Herodotus 488-428 BC AD 900 1,300 yrs. 8
Thucydides c. 460-400 BC c. AD 900 1,300 yrs. 8
Livy's Roman History 59 BC-AD 17 AD 900 900 yrs. 20
Caesar's Gallic War 58-50 BC AD 900 950 yrs. 9-10
Tacitus AD 100 AD 100 1,000 yrs. 20
New Testament AD 40-100 AD 130 (partial) 30-310 yrs. 5,000+ Greek
AD 350 (full) 10,000 Latin
9,300 others (2)
THE ACCURACY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Textual criticism, according to the dictionary is "the process of attempting to ascertain the original wording of the text."(3) Experts agree that the more manuscripts you have for comparison and the earlier they were written, the better chance of their accuracy. One textual critic, FJA Hort says, "In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings."(4)
In regards to the accuracy of the New Testament text, "Philip Schaff estimated that of the thousands of variations in all the manuscripts known in his day, only 50 were of real significance and of these not one affected 'an article of faith'. Even agnostic NT critic Bart Ehrman admits that 'In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology.' Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple-slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another” (Misquoting Jesus, 55)."(5) The differences in wording or changes due to error do not take away from the meaning. Consider the following message:
Y#o have won a million dollars
Yo# have won a million dollars
Even with the mistake, you know exactly what the sentence is saying; the message is clear. Now take a look at what happens when the wording is changed:
You have won ten million dollars
Thou hast won 10 million dollars
Y'all have won $10,000,000 (6)
Norman Geisler says "The reconstructed text of the New Testament is 99.9% free from real concern."(7) The message and content are the same. You have no problem seeing that each line says the same thing. Textual critics agree that we can apply this same logic to the New Testament.
Bible.org has this to say in its article on the reliability of the New Testament:
We may not have the very original books and letters of the New Testament (and no text today coming from the ancient world has the originals), but we can reconstruct it as accurately as possible in our present state of knowledge. If we consider Greco-Roman classics as accurate, though they do not have as many manuscripts so soon after the originals, then why not accept the New Testament as accurate?
After the arduous process of applying scientific methods to the New Testament to determine the best reading, where uncertainties remain, Christian doctrine is never overturned or negated. Where one verse may have a word or clause undergoing the arduous process of textual criticism, the entire sweep of the New Testament assures us that the doctrines stand on solid ground. The earliest church enjoyed high-level unanimity on such doctrines as the virgin birth and the deity of Christ.(8)
I have not attempted to cover the vast amount of evidence that is available. I wanted you to see that the Bible can be reasonably trusted. Although I focused on the New Testament, all of Scripture is inerrant and inspired and has accurately been handed down to us. I came across an article that talked about the three tests set up by military historian C. Sanders: the bibliographic test, the internal evidence test, and the external test.(9) We may explore this more in a future post.
The evidence for the reliability of the Bible is remarkable. Over the years though, people have given specific Scriptures various meanings. The things these people have taught has caused division over minor issues. Wherever it is possible, we should strive for unity. But others have changed the meaning of Scripture and essential doctrines in significant ways. The Bible refers to these people as false teachers, and they have been around in every generation. Next post we take a look at what the Bible has to say about heresy.
1. Does Truth Exist and Can It be Known? (podcast)
5. A Note on the Accuracy of the New Testament Text by Norman Geisler