Is the Bible we have in our hands historically reliable? Frequently the charge is made that we cannot trust the Bible we hold in our hands today because it was written 2000 years ago. Over the last 2000 years, thousands of errors and discrepancies have found their way into the Bible. Therefore, we cannot know if what we are reading are the actual words of the apostles from the first century. This morning we are going to address these concerns to determine if we can trust what we read today to be words written in the first century.
Every historical document is put through a series of tests to determine whether or not a document is reliable. We will apply these same tests to the scriptures to see if they can be found worthy of our trust.
I. The Bibliographical Test
A. Reliability of the copies
- It is important to examine the textual transmission by which documents reach us. What this means is since we do not have the original documents, we must determine how reliable our copies are based upon the number copies we have and the time interval between the original writing and the existing copies.
- For example, Plato’s work Tetralogies was written between 427-347 B.C. The earliest copy we have of this work is dated 900 A.D., meaning a time span of 1200 years between the original writing and a copy in existence. We have only seven copies of this work. Similarly, Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote about 100 A.D. The earliest copy we have of his work 1100 A.D., which leaves a time span of 1000 years. We have less than 20 copies of his work. For a complete chart of historical documents, I encourage you to read Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell.
- William Shakespeare wrote his plays in the 17 th century. Yet in every one of his plays we have gaps in the printed text, where we have no idea what originally was said. Textual scholars must make emendations (a good guess) to fill in the blanks. We see that every historical document has problems when it comes to the number of copies which exist and how many years removed the copies are from the original.
- What would you suppose is the number of New Testament copies we have in existence today? Would you suppose we only have a handful, like the works of Tacitus? Would you suppose that we only have a few like the works of Plato and Pliny? We have over 24,000 ancient manuscript copies of the New Testament. This is an astounding number. In fact, the next greatest amount of manuscript copies we have of any other historical work is Homer’s Iliad which has only 643 copies. We have nearly 40 times as many ancient copies of the New Testament than we have for Homer’s Iliad. We have over 5600 Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament alone!
- Further, the earliest copy we have of Homer’s Iliad was written about 500 years after the original was penned. Hundreds of years passed allowing time for changes from the original writing. The earliest copy we have of the New Testament is 25 years after the original writings. We have copies dating to 125 A.D., 25-50 years time from when the originals were penned. These early copies show us that we have the original writings in our copies.
- Realize that when you only have seven copies of an ancient manuscript, if a couple have a discrepancy, it is hard to know what the original said. Four manuscripts read one way and three manuscripts read another way. How can you know which is the original reading? However, when you have over 24,000 ancient manuscripts, if a handful of manuscripts have a discrepancy, it is easy to know what the original was because of the majority reading of the other manuscripts.
B. Variants and discrepancies?
- So are there any variants or discrepancies between the manuscript copies? Homer’s Iliad has 764 lines in doubt. 764 lines where there are variations and thus there is argument over the reading. Does anyone today read Homer’s Iliad and say that they cannot trust the reading because of these variations? Not at all. I have never heard any English professor declare Homer’s Iliad as untrustworthy because of these variations. How many variations are there in the New Testament? There are 40 lines (400 words) that are in doubt, which amounts one-half of one percent of the document.
- Now let me put this into proper perspective. You may read the claims that there are 150,000 variants in the New Testament. This means if the same word is misspelled in 3000 manuscripts then there are 3000 variants. Of the 150,000 variant readings, they occur in only 10,000 places. Of these 10,000 places, all but 400 are questions of spelling in according with accepted usage, grammatical construction, or order of words. This is what we said above that there are 40 lines (400 words) in doubt. Of the 400 words, only 50 are of great significance. In some places the copies have “Lord Jesus” while others have “Lord Jesus Christ.” This is not significant because the meaning is clearly obvious. Of the 50 of great significance, not one of these changes one article of faith that cannot be abundantly sustained by other undoubted passages.
- I would like to show you one of the places where there is a significant variant. In Acts 8:37 most of the manuscript copies contain the confession of the Ethiopian eunuch. Some of the manuscript copies do not contain this confession, and many of your Bibles make a marking designating this variation. Does the loss of the eunuch’s confession change an article of faith? No article of faith is lost because the scriptures abundantly teach the need for confession. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.” Confession is taught in the scriptures as necessary for salvation. We do not need to eunuch’s confession in Acts 8 to know a confession is necessary by all who desire to be disciples of Christ. Acts 8:37 is a significant variant, perhaps one of the largest variants, yet it does not change any teaching in the Bible.
- No one questions the historical books of antiquity simply because we do not possess the original documents. Based upon only a handful of copies dates hundreds of years later from the originals, we still have confidence in the works of Plato, Tacitus, Homer, and many others. The New Testament has thousands of copies, some of which are dated within 25-50 years of the originals. No one has a claim that the New Testament is untrustworthy based upon textual transmission.
- I do not have as much time to go into the same amount of detail concerning the Old Testament. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a historic find bringing the gap of time between the original and the copies to only a couple hundred years. Up until the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our earliest copies were 1300 years from the originals, which was no better than some other ancient literature. The Dead Sea Scrolls also proved the accuracy of the later copies because there were no significant changes between the manuscripts. The scribes of the Old Testament were very meticulous about copying word of word such that they felt they could destroy the original because the copy was completely accurate to the original.
II. Internal Evidence Test
A. Literary criticism
- Aristotle’s dictum toward literary criticism was this: “The benefit of the doubt is given to the document itself, and not arrogated by the critic to himself.” Basically, what this means is that we must listen to the claims of the document under analysis and not assume fraud or error unless the author of the document disqualifies himself by contradictions or known inaccuracies.
- If this is not the basis for examining a historical document, then anyone could simply declare a historical document fraudulent and therefore discarded. Rather, we must assume accuracy and reliability unless something in the writing proves itself false.
B. Inaccuracies or contradictions?
- Of course, many critics have come along a declared that there are geographical inaccuracies or contradictions. First, if anyone claims contradictions, let them prove it. This is an unsubstantiated charge that is constantly thrown about without any merit or proof. Any time the charge of contradiction comes up, we must ask if there is a good and sufficient answer for the charge. It is not enough to claim contradiction but not try to reconcile the alleged contradiction.
- Second, the Bible has constantly been charged with geographical inaccuracies. There have been claims that the Bible is in error concerning the location and naming of cities because we have no record of the city. However, archaeology continues to prove the words of the Bible as we excavate and find more remnants of the past. In future lessons, Lord willing, we will look in more detail at the internal evidences of the Bible to see if it truly reliable.
III. External Evidence Test
- Not only must the document be validated by its own internal evidences, but must maintain accuracy to the external evidences. We must determine with other historical material confirms or denies the internal testimony of the document. Therefore, we are looking for other sources to substantiate the document’s accuracy and reliability.
- We first have the writings of other Christians in the early centuries of the existence of the people we read in the Bible. Eusebius speaks of Mark writing down the words of Peter concerning Christ, which is a reference to the gospel of Mark. Ireneus speaks of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all publishing their gospels in different locations at varying times. Other Christian writers validating the Bible are Papias, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Tatian. They all wrote within the first hundred years of the writing of the New Testament.
- We also have the writings of non-Christians which confirms the accuracy of the scriptures. Tacitus records Christus who suffered extreme penalty by the hands of Pontius Pilate. Suetonius confirms the Bible record of Jews being expelled from Rome under the reign of Claudius Caesar. Josephus also verified many statements of the New Testament.
- As we mentioned a moment ago, archeology is another test used to verify a historical document. Other books that claim to be the word of God have obvious geographical inaccuracies. For example, the book of Mormon says Jesus was born in Jerusalem. The Bible says Jesus was born in Bethlehem. To reconcile this, the Mormons say that Bethlehem was a suburb of Jerusalem. But archaeology and other external evidence show that such an argument is false. Bethlehem was a distinct town unto itself.
- The Bible has stood the tests of archaeology, never one artifact disproving anything recorded in the Bible. In fact, archaeology continues to prove the validity of the Bible throughout time.
We can trust the Bible as reliable. We will spend more time in future going into detail to prove the reliability of the Bible in regards to the internal and external evidence we have today. But no one should ever claim the Bible to be untrustworthy because of the length of time removed we are from the first century. We have greater manuscript witnesses for the New Testament than we do any other historical document. We have greater testimony for the New Testament than we do for Shakespeare’s plays which were only written three centuries ago. The Bible stands the test and we can trust what we read today is what the apostles penned nearly 2000 years ago.