The Authorship and Reliability of the Bible
Note: I wrote this essay defending my view of the Bible at the time. I say, "at the time" because my view of the Bible is currently part of some fresh study and reflection that will not change the facts presented, or most of the implications, but this now makes me uncomfortable with the tone I took in this essay. I hope to revise this after further study.
The Bible is unique as a historical document. It has been read by more people and published in more languages than any other book. Christianity teaches that even though men wrote it, God himself is the author, and that He worked in a supernatural way such that those who were actually doing the writing wrote down precisely what He wanted them to write. The Christian church did not invent this claim, but the Bible itself asserts this in numerous passages. Of course the Bible's assertions alone do not prove that it is God's work; other books make similar claims. However, the biblical writings can be proven through both internal and external evidences. The historical narratives are accurate, the prophecies made are fulfilled, and the teachings given change lives. In short, the Bible holds up just as we would expect it to if God were the author.
Even though the Bible was written on perishable materials and copied by scribes for hundreds of years before the invention of the printing press, it has survived virtually intact. In fact, the Bible has more manuscript evidence than any other 10 pieces of classical literature combined. There are over 24,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament in existence today, with the oldest manuscript dated at 125 years after the original autograph. That might seem like a long time, but by comparison, Homer's Iliad is a distant second with a mere 643 manuscript copies, and with the oldest copy dated at 500 years after the original. In their book, "A General Introduction to the Bible", Geisler and Nix compare the textual variations between the New Testament documents and their closest competition for accuracy, Homer's Iliad. Both texts were considered sacred, and both underwent textual changes and criticism of their Greek manuscripts. The Iliad contains about 15,600 lines of which 764 lines are in doubt. This means the Iliad manuscripts contain five percent textual corruption or uncertainty. By contrast, the New Testament contains 20,000 lines with only 40 lines, or 400 words in doubt, which figures to 99.5 percent textual certainty, or only one-half of one percent of words containing variants (Giesler & Nix 366 367). None of the disputed passages in the New Testament represent a challenge to any Christian doctrine or moral precept, with most of the variants being attributed to errors in spelling or slight differences of style.
Sir Frederic Kenyon was the director and principal librarian for the British Museum, and one of the great authorities in the field of New Testament textual criticism. He states, "No fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading" and, "It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain" (Kenyon 23). In his book "History and Christianity" John Montgomery states, "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 29).
The Jews had elaborate systems in place to preserve the accuracy of the Old Testament documents as they were painstakingly copied by hand. Bernard Ramm speaks of the accuracy and number of old testament manuscripts, and he describes how the Jews used a special process know as "massora" (parva, magna, and finalis) which kept tabs on ever letter, syllable, word, and paragraph. A special class of dedicated, and highly trained men did this work; their sole duty was to preserve and transmit these documents (Ramm 230 231).
Scholars have compiled these ancient manuscripts into Greek texts known as "critical texts". Our English versions are translated directly from these Greek texts, and not from other translations. This answers the misconception that the Bible has been translated and retranslated to the point that it is no longer accurate. The contemporary translations that use accurate translation methods and depend on a reliable critical Greek text can be trusted to accurately represent the Bible as it was originally given in the Old and New Testaments. Any differences in meaning from one responsible translation to another are insignificant, and the few passages that differ from one text type to another are well known and usually noted in any reputable study Bible.
It should be noted that there have been deliberate and unscholarly mistranslations of the Bible done by some groups, such as the New World Translation used by the Jehovah Witnesses in their attempts to justify their non-Biblical doctrines, but this in no way diminishes the reliability of the accurate and scholarly translations.
We can be confident that the manuscripts and responsible translations of the Bible are accurate representations of the original autographs, and this makes the Bible unique as an historical document. Its historical content is also amazingly accurate. There are numerous archaeological findings that support the Biblical narratives on historical maters. For instance, recent excavations at Tell Mardikh, now known as the site of Ebla, uncovered about 15,000 tablets. Some of these have been translated and clearly indicate the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah; two cities mentioned in the Bible that many had previously thought were mythological. Some of the other archaeological verifications include proof that there was a ruler named Belshazzar; the Hittites not only existed but also had a vast empire; King Sargon also ruled, and the biblical writings on early Christian history in the Book of Acts are demonstrably accurate. In fact, the findings of archaeology have only verified the biblical record, and not one single finding has disputed it. William F. Albright is known as one of the world's great archaeologists, and he states, "Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the Bible as a source of history" (Albright 127 128). But we would expect a book authored by God to be completely accurate in historical matters.
Another proof of the Bible's inspiration is that it foretells of persons, places, and things that had not yet occurred at the time of the writing. In one such prophecy, written about 700 BC by the Prophet Isaiah, Isaiah predicts that a king named Cyrus will say that Jerusalem shall be built, and that the temple foundation shall be laid (Isaiah 44:28 - 45:1). But there was a problem. At the time of this writing Jerusalem was a fully developed city and the entire temple was standing! More than 100 years later (about 586 BC) King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and temple. Then the Persians conquered Jerusalem in about 539 BC, and finally, about 160 years after the prophecy of Isaiah, a Persian king named Cyrus gave the decree to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. This is not an isolated prophecy, but one of literally hundreds that accurately predicted future events. The notion that so many fulfilled prophecies could be the result of coincidence is absurd.
Lastly, those who follow the Bible's teachings find their lives changed as a result. While this is difficult to quantify, the Christian experience of sanctification through the application of biblical doctrines and principals, while experiencing God's grace and guidance as taught in the Bible is nothing short of miraculous. As our society as a whole strays from these same principles, many of which our country was founded on, we see disastrous results, but this is what we would expect if the author of the book is God.
The Bible is truly unique; the French skeptic, Rousseau, even saw something different in the biblical writings. "I must confess to you that the majesty of the Scriptures astonishes me; the holiness of the evangelists speaks to my heart and has such striking characters of truth, and is moreover, so perfectly inimitable, that if it had been the invention of men, the inventors would be greater that the greatest heroes" (Mead 32)
There is extensive research that indicates that the manuscripts we have today are faithful copies of the original autographs. Our English translations are accurate, and taken directly from the oldest and most dependable of the ancient manuscripts, and this can be easily verified by anyone who questions it. The Bible contains numerous accounts of fulfilled prophecy, as well as accurate accounts of historical events, places, and peoples, many of which have been verified by archaeology.
All the evidence leads to the conclusion that the Bible is not only accurate and historically unique, but it is truly remarkable, even to the intellectually honest skeptics who have explored it. It is completely reasonable, and intellectually defensible, to base one's faith and life on the Bible.
Albright, William F. The Archaeology of Palestine. Revised edition, Harmondsworth,
Middlesex: Pelican Books, 1960, p 127, 128
Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago:
Moody Press, 1968, p 366,367
Kenyon, Frederic G. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. New York: Harper and
Brothers, 1941, p23
Mead, Frank (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations. Westwook: Fleming H.
Revell, n.d. p32
Montgomery, John W. History and Christianity. Downers Grove, IL 60515: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971, p 29.
Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Christian Evidences. Chicago: Moody Press, 1957, p 230,231