“All scripture is inspired by God . . .” ~ 2 Timothy 3:16
Those who know me are aware that I firmly hold that the Bible is fully reliable, fully inspired, and fully authoritative. This is why my books are packed to the gills with references to Scripture to buttress the points I seek to make.
As would be expected, I’ve received a good deal of push back on my belief in the truthfulness of Scripture from skeptics. But I’ve also received criticism from some fellow Christians, most of whom hold to a “canon within a canon” perspective or who hold to the idea that the Bible is only the Word of God when it’s accompanied by personal “revelation.” I reject both views and for that reason I’ve garnered some unpleasant mail.
That said, most of those whom I’ve had conversations with on the issue of the Bible’s reliability are people who presently reject Jesus. In this post, I’ll list their key objections along with my responses.
Suffice to say that in my experience, the majority of those who insist that the Bible is unreliable and untrustworthy have never investigated the evidence for themselves. They’ve just heard arguments put forth by others and repeated them without examining the subject for themselves.
The most notable are . . .
1. The Bible has been copied so many times throughout the centuries that it cannot possibly be trustworthy. Surely the original meaning has changed over the many years of being copied and re‑copied.
According to literary scholars, the genuineness of a written document is determined by the number of copies made from the original manuscripts (the original handwritten documents of the New Testament), the time interval between the original and the copies, and the number of discrepancies among those copies.
Using those metrics, the New Testament is the most reliable historical document in existence of comparable age.
Presently, there are over 20,000 copies of New Testament manuscripts (early copies) in existence. Homer’s Iliad, which only has 643 manuscript copies, ranks second to the New Testament in manuscript authority (numbers of copies).
But that’s not all.
The earliest copies of the New Testament manuscripts are dated extremely close to the time when the originals were penned. In comparison to all other classical writings of the ancient world, the manuscript copies of the New Testament are hundreds of years closer to their originals. And there is only a 2% variation within the manuscripts—most of them being accounted for by differences in spelling and punctuation.
Not one of the variants (differences) alters any Christian belief.
For these reasons, the New Testament is the most reliable piece of ancient classical literature in existence.
If you doubt the historical reliability of the New Testament, then you must also discard our entire knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Why? Because the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is far superior to that of any classical Roman or Greek work.
For example, the earliest copy of Tacitus’ Annals was written 1,000 years after the original manuscript and there are only 20 copies of it in existence today.
The earliest copy of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars was written 800 years after the original and there are only eight in existence today. In stark contrast, the earliest copies of the New Testament were written approximately 50 years after they were originally authored and there are about 24,000 manuscript portions of it in existence today.
Then there is the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before the Scrolls were discovered in 1947, the oldest existing complete manuscript of the Old Testament was dated around A.D. 900. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls contains a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. Paleographers dated the text around 125 B.C., over 1,000 years earlier than the manuscripts of Isaiah that we previously possessed.
Amazingly, the two copies were identical in 95% of the text. The 5% variation consisted only in spelling and in obvious slips of the pen. Therefore, the exactness of the two scrolls, which span a period of 1,000 years of transmission, demonstrates that the Bible is indeed genuine.
Note that the copyists of the Bible considered it to be a sacred text. So they exercised a great deal of caution and precision in transcribing it. They certainly applied far more care to the transmission of the Biblical text than did the Roman and Greek historians and playwrights.
To sum up, if someone is going to discard the Bible as being untrustworthy, they will have to discard all other pieces of classical literature.
2. The New Testament was filled with legends and myths about Jesus Christ that were written by His followers generations after He lived, so how could any of the information be accurate?
This question contains a false assumption. Scholars have demonstrated that the New Testament authors wrote their accounts of Jesus within a generation of the time in which He lived.
William F. Albright from John Hopkins University is regarded as “the father of modern archaeology.” Albright has said, “We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date of A.D. 130‑150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.”
According to Albright’s research, “every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the 40’s and 80’s of the first century A.D.” The external evidence for this is compelling.
For instance, the earliest copy of the Gospel of Matthew dates into the last quarter of the first century and the earliest copy of the Gospel of John dates into the first quarter of the second century. These documents were found in Egypt, not in Palestine where they were originally written.
Therefore, the latest possible date for John’s Gospel carries us several years into the first century and the latest date for Matthew brings us quite close to A.D. 75 (for one must allow time for the manuscripts to get from Palestine to Egypt in a day when you didn’t have printing presses, automobiles, and fax machines).
Many contemporary scholars, however, date these books quite early, in the A.D. 50s and 60s.
The internal evidences, which are numerous, also indicate such early dates. Consequently, it is beyond the realm of debate that the entire New Testament was on paper well within the century in which Christ lived. Such evidence utterly destroys the notion that the New Testament contains mythology and legend.
You see, legends and myths simply could not develop and survive in such a short time span, for those who were firsthand witnesses of the events would have discounted the false reports. (Historians tell us that it takes at least two generations for a myth to develop.) This is unshakeable evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament accounts of Christ.
The external evidence supplied by archaeological discoveries also supports the authenticity of the Biblical accounts. Archaeologist Joseph Free has rightly stated, “Archeology has confirmed countless passages which have been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contradictory to known facts.”
Along this same line archeologist Nelson Glueck declares, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference.”
Finally, according to William F. Albright, “The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phases 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.”
Some of the more recent archeological discoveries supporting the Biblical records are as follows: The Ebla tablets, the existence of the Hittite empire, the walls of Jericho, the Pavement (the court where Jesus was tried), the Pool of Bethesda, the village of Bethsaida, the cave of Machpelah, and many others.
3. How do we know that the writers of the New Testament didn’t deliberately lie about their account of Jesus Christ: His Person, His miracles, and His resurrection?
So the writers of the New Testament were not passing on legend and myth. But what about the idea that they fabricated their accounts in order to deceive their audience?
I find this unbelievable for several reasons.
First, the historical fact of Christ’s existence is well documented outside the Christian tradition. (Just a few examples are Tacitus, Annals, 15:44; Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus; Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25:4; Pliny the Younger, Epistles 10:96; Phlegon, Chronicles; Thallus, Histories, Bk. 3; Josephus, Antiquities 18:33, 29:1; the Babylonian Talmud; etc.)
The historical evidence is quite clear that even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus.
Instead, the notion that Jesus never existed was put forth by several writers in the 18th‑19th centuries on inadequate grounds. So much so that no serious historian or scholar affirms it today.
In fact, there is more evidence for the existence of Christ than that of Caesar, Nero, Hammurabi, Aristotle, Plato, and many other major historical figures.
From a common sense standpoint, it is inconceivable that the person who has had the greatest influence on the civilized world never existed. The notion that the New Testament writers fabricated the man Jesus strains the bounds of credulity until they break.
As the famed historian Will Durant once said, “That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of High Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western civilization.”
Most contemporary historians agree with Durant’s assessment. Jesus of Nazareth’s existence is undeniable.
Second, the New Testament accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus were recorded by men who were either eyewitnesses of Christ themselves or related the accounts of those who were eyewitnesses of Him. The New Testament constitutes what is called “primary” or “firsthand” evidence.
Strikingly, what the New Testament writers reported was not only observed by themselves, but also by their contemporaries—some of whom were hostile to Christianity.
Consequently, since the New Testament writings were circulated within the lifetimes of those alive when Jesus lived, they could have easily denied the accuracy of the events reported. But they did not.
New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce has said, “And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with; there were others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ but also, ‘As you yourselves also know’ (Acts 2:22). Had there been any tendency to depart from the fact in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.”
So if the New Testament writers were inaccurate concerning their accounts of Christ, such fraud or inaccuracy would have been exposed by their contemporaries. Rather, we have external evidence outside of the New Testament whereby early critics of Christianity confirmed Christ’s words and acts.
While they conceded that the miracles that Jesus performed were real and the teachings that He gave were authentic, they disagreed with His message and attributed His powers to magical arts or demonic origins. But they never denied the actual events.
Third, the way the New Testament is written reveals its historical reliability. The New Testament authors recorded their own weaknesses and failures. This strongly suggests that they did not “invent” their reports.
Their writings themselves do not read like propaganda. Common sense dictates that if a person deliberately constructed a false event, he or she surely wouldn’t want to include their own weaknesses and failures in it.
Fourth, the New Testament writers willingly died for their testimony about Jesus and His resurrection. This fact alone is unshakeable. While many people have willingly died for what they believed was the truth, few if any would die for a lie that they themselves conceived.
The fact is that all twelve apostles of Jesus willingly suffered in the cruelest ways for their testimony that Christ had risen from the dead. They were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, and beaten for their testimony that they had seen the resurrected Jesus and that He was the Son of God. According to history, eleven out of the twelve disciples became martyrs for their testimony.
This suggests that what the disciples had reported concerning Christ was indeed accurate. I have never heard of a con man that was willing to die for his con.
(For a contemporary defense of the resurrection of Jesus by a first-rate historian, see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.)
4. Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions and discrepancies? And doesn’t this prove that it is unreliable and untrue?
I have heard this objection a lot, but we should ask: “What constitutes a real discrepancy?” The New Testament provides us with four separate accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, all written by different authors who told the story of Jesus from their own perspective.
It is not fair to conclude that every difference within the accounts constitutes a contradiction. In many cases, the Biblical authors narrated the same event, yet one was compelled to emphasize certain aspects of it while the other writers shoved those aspects into the background.
One of my atheist friends once argued that the Bible contradicted itself in regard to how Judas Iscariot died. According to the book of Acts, Judas fell “headlong and his body burst open.” According to the book of Matthew, Judas hung himself.
But is this really a contradiction? Matthew does not deny that after Judas hung himself he fell headlong. Neither does Acts rule out that Judas hung himself before his fall.
It seems that both are telling the same story, only a different part of it. That is, Judas suspended himself on a very steep cliff overhanging the Valley of Hinnom where the rope or the tree limb gave way. When the rope or limb broke, Judas fell to the bottom of the valley and his body became mangled.
Another cause for apparent discrepancies is when one makes the mistaken assumption that the Gospel writers are reporting the same event when they are not. For example, both Matthew and Luke list the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Yet, their genealogies differ greatly. This isn’t a contradiction.
Matthew traces Christ’s genealogy from the line of Joseph (Jesus’ legal father), while Luke follows the line of Mary (Jesus’ blood relative).
As one scholar has noted, “Every difficulty and discrepancy in the Scriptures is, and will yet be seen to be, capable of a fair and reasonable solution.”
In summary, the apparent contradictions of the Bible are often easily explained and reconciled when all of the evidence is examined in context. (See Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible which treats scores of apparent contradictions in the Bible and clears them up.)
What I’ve written in this post is merely an introduction to the subject. In my new book, Jesus: A Theography – a volume that argues that the entire Word of God (both Old and New Testaments) reveals Jesus Christ – I list a number of books that argue for the veracity of the New Testament in detail saying,
To those who would question the reliability of the New Testament and the Gospel accounts therein, we recommend The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1960); The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988); The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987); Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006); The Historical Jesus of the Gospels by Craig Keener; Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels by James D. G. Dunn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); Memory, Jesus, and Synoptic Gospels by Robert McIver (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011); Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy (see n. 3); Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Richard Hays; The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) and The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) by Lee Strobel; and Gospel Perspectives (6 volumes), eds. R. T. France, David Wenham, and Craig Blomberg (Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1980–1986). See also The Art of Reading Scripture by Ellen David and Richard Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003); Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, rev. and exp. ed. by N. T. Wright (New York: HarperOne, 2011); The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006); Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture by Paul Achtemeir (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999); and The Bible Made Impossible (see intro., n. 68).
I believe the Old Testament is equally inspired and reliable. And a similar list of books can be compiled as well.
On a somewhat related note, see my post from May 2012 called On Mysticism where I argue that a person’s personal leadings or insights should never be placed on a par with or above Scripture, something I expand upon in Revise Us Again.
Stay tuned for Part IV of the series tomorrow.