Tuesday, August 28, 2012

FAQ: Is the Bible Reliable?

by Dave
I have had this conversation perhaps a million times:
Me: [talking about the Gospel] The Bible says...
Person: Well, you know that the Bible has been corrupted.
Me: Oh it has?
Person: Yes, it has been around for thousands of years and has been tampered with by men throughout the years.  Who knows what it said originally?
Me: Okay. So, what parts have been tampered with?
Person: Excuse me?
Me: If the Bible has been corrupted and the earliest manuscripts are so different, what parts have been corrupted?
Person: ...
Perhaps you have been on one side of such a conversation. I think there is a temptation to just blow off the question of reliability on either side. For the Christian, we may just believe that the Bible is reliable and since that is enough for us, it should be enough for others. For the skeptic, it may be enough to just say that the Bible has been corrupted without any evidence. But I thought, "Today, let us shun simplistic argumentation and actually consider the question: Is the Bible reliable?" I mean why not? 

How Does the New Testament Compare?

In researching for this post I realized that this is a HUGE topic and I am only going to be able to breeze over the surface. And just for the sake of time, I am going to focus on the reliability of the New Testament. There is much that has been said and should be said about the reliability of the Old Testament, but I just cannot do it here (maybe in another post perhaps). 

A reality that makes this whole discussion difficult is that we do not have in our possession the original documents for the books that make up the New Testament. Instead what we currently have are copies. This is true for most (if not all) ancient writings. But, as it turns out, we have lots and lots of copies.

The image below is a visual aid, which helps in grasping the number of copies (or manuscripts) that we currently have of the New Testament (click on the picture to see it bigger on its original site). Per this data we currently have 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, some from only 40 years after the originals were written. Homer’s Iliad came in second place, of which we have 643 documents; the closest of which is 500 years from the original. Notice the difference: there are 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament and only 643 of Homer’s Iliad. And notice how few manuscripts we have for the other documents listed in this illustration.

John Warwick Montgomery says that "to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament" (Montgomery in McDowell 35). In other words, if you do not believe that the Bible is historically reliable, you really cannot believe that any document from ancient history is reliable. Do you believe that Julius Caesar existed? Why? We believe it because we have read something that cited something that was described in an ancient document. And yet of one such document (Caesar's Gallic Wars composed between 58 and 50 BC) we only have 9 or 10 good manuscripts and "the oldest is some 900 years later than in Caesar's day" (Bruce quoted in McDowell). We believe facts about a man that existed around the time of Christ with much less textual evidence than that which exists for the Bible. And we should! There is no reason to believe that these documents are not real, or that Caesar never existed.

In comparison, we find that the texts of the New Testament are actually the most reliable documents of the ancient world. We do have very old copies of the New Testament, some sections dating back to within a generation of their writing. And we do compare these with the translations of the Bible that we have and we make changes accordingly. So, if you are holding your school history book in one hand and the Bible in the other, you can trust the reliability of the Bible more than your history book. And this is not an opinion, but a proven truth. You can actually look at these manuscripts, many of which have been scanned and can be viewed online (check out http://www.csntm.org/manuscript).

Are There Errors in Our Bible?

One hard truth that many Christians are hesitant to admit is that while the original text of the Bible was inerrant, there are errors in the Bibles that we have today. These are places where something has been changed throughout the years, sometimes intentionally but usually unintentionally. David Alan Black gives an example of such an error in his book, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. Manuscripts of Mark 1:2 offer two variant readings: 1) “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet”; 2) “as it is written in the prophets.” Black gives several reasons that the former is the preferred reading (Black 46), but really only one of them can represent the original reading, which means the manuscripts that have the other reading are wrong. Translators have to wrestle with the variations and make decisions as to which is the best.   Fortunately, as the above example illustrates, these variations are small and often insignificant.  Does it change the meaning of the passage for it to include the name of Isaiah? No. Even though there is a variant reading, the meaning is the same. Further, David Dockery claims, "Although there are certainly differences in many of the New Testament manuscripts, not one fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading" (Dockery in McDowell 35).

An Illustration

Allow me to indulge in an illustration. Suppose that for the purpose of school pride a teacher decided to have every student in every one of her classes hand copy the words of the school fight song every semester. Over the years this teacher had so many students that at her retirement party they were able to accumulate 24,000 such hand copies. It was at that point that they realized that they no longer could find the original fight song that had been written so many years before. Comparing all of these copies however, it would not be hard to determine where mistakes had been made or where a stubborn juvenile had forcibly changed the fight song in rebellion. In the end with all of those copies, it would not be difficult to know exactly what the original fight song read. In fact, it would be pretty absurd to say that the fight song is lost. We have 24,00 copies! Though New Testament textual criticism is far more complex than this fight song analogy, the basic principle is the same. With thousands of copies to compare, few and minor changes between them, we can know with near certainty what was found in those original manuscripts.

Will You Obey?


Nearly every time I have the above conversation about the reliability of the Scriptures, no evidence is given for the corruption of the text. Further, when seeking to discuss the issue with people, usually anger is expressed or just a complete unwillingness to talk any further. What then we are facing is not a seeker desiring a better understanding of textual criticism, but a skeptic that is rejecting the content of Scripture. If you do not like what the Bible says, just be honest. Do not hide behind the smoke screen of the reliability of Scripture, because the Scripture is reliable. And the real Jesus Christ really spoke the words that are found in the reliable Scripture and they really apply to you. Among the many things that he said were these words in John 3:

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him."

Whether or not you are asking with a sincere heart, "is the text of the Bible reliable?" please know that the answer is a resounding YES! So, now the real question is, will you obey it?



If you are really interested in understanding textual criticism (the process by which the oldest manuscripts of the Bible are studied and analyzed), I would recommend the small book I mentioned earlier: New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide by David Allen Black. This is an important process that most of us never think about. This book (only 79 pages) walks through why and how these texts are examined and changes are thus made to the translations we currently have. It is extremely informative.

Here are some other resources I used for this blog:
Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1964.
Dockery, David S., Kenneth A. Matthews and Robert B. Sloan. Foundations for Biblical Interpretation. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.
McDowell , Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
Montgomery, John W. History and Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1964.