Questions on the reliability of the Bible may involve its authenticity, accuracy, or authority. We will examine each of these in turn.
1. The Authenticity of the Bible
The question of authenticity involves the textual reliability of the Bible, in other words, whether the Bible today faithfully reproduces the original text of the biblical books.
This question is complicated by the fact that we don’t have any original manuscripts but only copies of copies.
And since the copies were produced by hand and scribes make mistakes, there are many variations between the manuscripts — some 300,000 for the New Testament alone. How can we have any confidence that the text we have is accurate?
Let us start with the Old Testament. Until the mid-twentieth century, the oldest manuscripts for the Hebrew Bible were written by the Masoretes, highly trained scribes who took extraordinary care to copy the texts accurately.
There are over 6,000 Masoretic manuscripts, the oldest of which is the Cairo Codex, dating to 895 CE. These manuscripts contain only the most minor variations that do not affect the meaning in any significant way.
Then in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These were written by a sectarian Jewish community located in Qumran in the Judean desert and include multiple scrolls containing at least part of every Old Testament book except Esther.
The most important of these is the Great Isaiah Scroll, dating to the late second century BCE — and the oldest complete book of the Old Testament so far discovered.
Even though it is 1,000 years earlier than the Cairo Codex, it only has minor differences from the Masoretic text.
Manuscripts found elsewhere in the Judean desert are even closer to the Masoretic text. As a result, there are no serious textual questions with regard to the Old Testament.
For the New Testament, there are over 6,000 Greek manuscripts and many early translations into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic.
The earliest New Testament text we have is the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library papyrus known as P52 — a fragment of the Gospel of John (containing John 18:31-33, 37-38).
This fragment is generally dated about 125 CE, within 30 years or so of the traditional date when the gospel was written.
In terms of the quantity and quality of manuscripts and the time difference from composition to our earliest manuscripts, the New Testament is the best-attested work written in antiquity.
But what about the 300,000 variations mentioned earlier? Most are minor errors easily corrected by comparison to other manuscripts. Once we eliminate these, only a small fraction of the 300,000 are left.
The number of these that affect the meaning of the text in a significant way — and where it is not obvious which variant is correct — is in the hundreds, or perhaps around a thousand.
That’s much less than one percent of the variants. Even the most interesting of these do not call for a radical change in the way we think about God or other major topics of the Bible.
There is thus no reason to doubt the authenticity of the biblical text. But what about its accuracy?
2. The Accuracy of the Bible
Just because we know what the Bible originally said does not mean that it is telling us the truth. Why not just view it as a bunch of myths?
While myths sometimes include actual places in their stories, they are untethered from history. The stories of the Bible present themselves as histories, not myths, with many details confirmed by archaeological discoveries.
Of course, the more recent the event, the more evidence is likely to survive. Nonetheless, there is considerable circumstantial evidence even going back to the Patriarchal Era.
A temple in Karnak, Egypt, refers to a location in the Negev called the Fort of Abram (Abraham’s original name). It is likely to be Beersheba, which Abraham founded.
Evidence from the city of Mari shows that names beginning with “J” or “I” (the same letter in Hebrew, pronounced Y) such as Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were popular in the patriarchal period but were much less common later.
Joseph was sold for 20 shekels. This was much less than the price of a slave when critics would later claim the book was written. Why would a later author make such a change?
Patriarchal religion did not look anything like the later religion of Israel. If it were made up then, why would the authors not read back current religious practice to the patriarchs?
There is also much evidence that events like those described in the Exodus and Conquest took place. Critics claim that the archaeological finds happened in the wrong period for the Conquest but dating events in this period is notoriously difficult.
Scholars have many different theories about the chronology as well as the dating of the Exodus. If we bracket the problem of establishing fixed dates, we can see that there is evidence for events matching the Bible’s descriptions.
Archaeologists have discovered considerable evidence for the kings of Judah and Israel, with new findings appearing regularly.
All of these support the biblical accounts. The Babylonian Captivity and the return from exile are likewise well documented by sources outside the biblical record.
The gospels and Acts are the main historical sources in the New Testament. The gospels are biographies according to the standards of the day; they have none of the characteristics of myths or legends.
Scholars agree that they were written in the first century within 60 years of the events described. Given that short period of time, there is no reason to doubt that the documents are historically reliable sources of information about Jesus.
External sources support the reliability of the gospels and Acts. Sources mention Jesus, his brother James, John the Baptist, and the political and religious rulers mentioned in the gospels.
The authors even get titles right for relatively obscure figures, as recent archaeological discoveries have shown.
Contrary to critics who claim the gospels were written several generations later by Gentile Christians, the texts show that they came from a Jewish context: Jesus’ title “the Son of Man” would not make sense to Gentiles.
There is no reference in the gospels to circumcision, a hot topic among Gentile converts; and Jesus enters into discussions of important issues to contemporary rabbis.
There are several lines of attack on the accuracy of the Bible.
Skeptical scholars challenge the authorship of biblical books, yet even if traditional attributions of authorship are wrong, that does not mean the books are not historically reliable as shown by the evidence above.
Others argue that science disproves the Bible. Many of the supposed conflicts with science come about because the Bible was written not in scientific language but in the language of appearance.
For example, even today we talk about the sunrise and sunset even though we know the sun isn’t moving. Further, our understanding of science may not be correct.
Scientists long assumed the universe was infinitely big and infinitely old and that this disproved Creation.
Then observations and math showed that the universe had a beginning, that it is finite, and that it is expanding. We should not allow these kinds of controversies to distract us from the gospel.
People claim that miracles are impossible and thus that we can dismiss the Bible. Yet the historical evidence for the central miracle of the Bible — Jesus’ resurrection — is strong, and this challenges the unproven assumption that miracles are impossible.
Perhaps the most common objection to the factual reliability of the Bible is that the Bible is supposedly full of contradictions. This is often an excuse not to take Christ’s claims seriously.
Most of the apparent contradictions can be easily shown not to be when read in a reliable translation, in context, and taking into account the ways that the biblical authors may not be presenting information in the way we want them to.
3. The Authority of the Bible
Next is the question of authority, that is, whether the Bible is divinely inspired. While the evidence above should be enough to demonstrate this, a few other lines of evidence are worth noting.
The Bible claims for itself divine authority. It tells us that God spoke to Moses and through the prophets, the New Testament affirms that the Old Testament was inspired by God and says the same of itself.
Of course, a book is not Scripture, the Word of God, merely because it says it is. But in the Bible, we find the claim to divine authority backed up by action.
The Red Sea parts, fire comes down from heaven, and Jesus is raised from the dead. This is why appreciating the historical reliability of the Bible is so important.
A second line of evidence involves messianic prophecy. Hundreds of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in specific detail in Jesus’ life.
For example, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, written seven centuries before the birth of Christ, is a clear portrait of the rejection, death, burial, andresurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
General prophecy also points to the divine origin of Scripture. For example, Hebrew prophets predicted the overthrow of Nineveh (Nahum 1:3), Babylon (Isaiah 13-14; Jeremiah 51), and the desolation and restoration of Palestine (Leviticus 26; Ezekiel 36), including the name of the Persian ruler who first returned the Jews to their land (Isaiah 45).
The transformational influence of the Bible also points to its divine origin. Even honest atheists admit the positive effects of the Bible on the world. For example, historian Tom Holland in his book Dominion shows the many ways Christianity has transformed culture for the good.
There are three main objections to the authority of Scripture.
The church ostensibly removed books from the Bible. These “missing books” are mostly Gnostic Gospels dated much later than the canonical gospels that sober scholars recognize do not give historical information about Jesus.
The Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry is absent, and they focus more on ideas from Greek philosophy than from Judaism.
The strongest criticisms of the Bible are ethical. Perhaps the most often cited ethical criticism of the Bible is the claim that God ordered Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan.
Yet both in Deuteronomy, which introduces God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites and in Joshua, which repeatedly says that this command was carried out, the text shows that this is hyperbole.
Most people have no trouble recognizing hyperbole when it’s part of their own culture but find it shocking or absurd when it’s part of someone else’s culture.
The Bible cannot function as a divine authority because it has no objective meaning. The Bible can be made to say anything a person wants. This objection rests on three faulty assumptions.
Exaggerating the extent to which Bible-believing Christians disagree in understanding the Bible. While they disagree on peripheral issues, they agree on the core doctrines of the faith.
Underestimating the extent to which people are capable of misunderstanding the truth. Economists looking at the same numbers come to diametrically opposite conclusions about what they mean. This does not mean the numbers are at fault.
Excessive pessimism about the possibility of resolving differences of interpretation. People understand the Bible differently, as they do practically everything else in life.
But in most cases of conflicting interpretations of the Bible, it is possible to learn enough to reach an informed, solidly based conclusion about which is correct, particularly about the essentials of the faith.