Examine Evidence for the Bible’s Reliability | Amy Wang

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This is a WordPress repost of an excellent article originally posted by Amy Wang that is a lengthy and relatively extensive investigation into the evidence for the Bible’s reliability. Be sure to bookmark it for future reference!


To believe the claims of Christianity simply because “the Bible tells me so,” begs the question, i.e., it assumes what we are trying to prove. What if instead of blindly believing the Bible, we checked the Bible against external historical, scientific, and geographical evidence? This is exactly what astronomer Hugh Ross did and he found to his surprise that the Bible contains many verifiable references, in contrast to the world’s other religious books. He then committed at least an hour a day to check the accuracy of these references. After 18 months, he believed the Bible was supernaturally inspired (Ross, Creator and the Cosmos, 17-21).

Hugh Ross is not alone. Many skeptics or atheists have either grown in respect for the Bible or come to believe it after they evaluated the evidence, such as archaeologists Sir William Ramsay and William Albright, journalist Lee Strobel, Frank Morison, Josh McDowell, professor emeritus of law at Harvard Dr. Simon Greenleaf, and Oxford professors Thomas Arnold, Lord Lyttleton, and Gilbert West. Christian apologists like Frank Turek note that we have many different kinds of testimony that support the Bible: 1. Early testimony,
2. Eyewitness testimony,
3. Extra-biblical,independent non-Christian testimony,
4. Enemy (hostile and skeptical) testimony. For example, the theory of the stolen body of Jesus is nevertheless evidence of the empty tomb in Matthew 28:11-15.
5Embarrassing testimony which reflects honesty,
6. Excruciating testimony, i.e., the willingness to suffer for one’s testimony, 7. Expert testimony
8. Multiple witnesses (e.g., four gospels) (Geisler/Turek, 231).

Below, we examine the following categories for evaluating the Bible’s reliability.

Criteria Analysis
1. Verifiability 1a. Science
Isn’t the Bible incompatible with science?

1b. Archaeology
Do we have evidence the names and places in the Bible are not legendary?

1c. Independent Historical Sources
How do we know Jesus really existed in history?

1d. Manuscript Preservation
Were there really 400,000 errors introduced through copying?

1e. Manuscript Copies (Bibliographical Test)
Isn’t it a problem that we lack the original manuscript (autographs)?

1f. Early Citations of the Bible
How do we know the Bible wasn’t altered?

1g. Early date of writing by eyewitnesses
The Bible was written down early enough that its first readers could have verified many of its facts, like the Bereans (Acts 17:11).

2. Content 2a. Unity in its central theme of redemption throughout all 66 books. 
How did 40 writers write in unity for a timepsan over a thousand years?

2b. Prophetic Accuracy
The fulfillment of detailed, accurate, time-bound prophecies written long ago sets the Bible apart.

2c. Typology
Besides prophecy, many Old Testament people or events foreshadow Christ in an amazing way.

2d. Ethical/Spiritual Truths
The Bible’s spiritual insights appear to be consistent with evidence from our conscience and spiritual convictions.

2e. Inconsistencies
What should we make of seeming inconsistencies in the Bible?

3. Peer review 3a. Endorsement by Experts and Critics
3b. Living Eyewitnesses
3c. The Canon
4. Motive 4a. Embarrassing Testimony
4b. Lack of political agenda of the early church
4c. Apostles suffered and died for the truth they witnessed
4d. The early church spread by persecution rather than conquest
4e. The unbelieving Jewish have no motive to manipulate the manuscript to support Jesus
5. Reputation 5. Reputation/Expertise/Credibility

1. Verifiability

1a.Science

Below are a few scientific discoveries which appear to be in agreement with the Bible. For more examples, see Ray Comfort’s Scientific Facts in the Bible.

What about possibly contradictory propositions like the age of the earth? It is important to note that even Christians misinterpret the Bible, sometimes because of translation inaccuracies. Some Christians believe a proper interpretation of the Bible may be consistent with a creation that was longer than six 24-hour days. For further info, read Doubting Ussher’s Creation Date of 4004 BC. For more articles on the scientific reliability of the bible, see other articles on the topic Faith and Science.

1b.Archaeology

Archaeologists like William Albright and Sir William Ramsay who were once skeptical of the Bible’s accuracy gained new respect for the Bible after studying the archaeological evidence. Sir William Ramsay, who originally was skeptical of the historicity of the Book of Acts, eventually concluded that its author, Luke, was a historian of first rank.

Archaeological discoveries have even validated details in the Bible once thought to be legendary, even going back to the first book of Genesis. Time and again, critics were proved wrong. For example, reference to the Hittites was previously questioned until evidence from modern Turkey revealed records of the Hittites (Strobel, Case for Faith-L, 129).

Archaeologists can confirm historical details related to the names of leaders, places, nations, and so on, when they are found in inscriptions, coins, tablets, and so forth. These findings have provided strong evidence of the historical and geographical reliability of the Bible.

In contrast, there is a relative lack of archaeological evidence for the persons, places, nations, and names in the Book of Mormon (Strobel, Case for Christ-S, 144).

1c.Independent Historical Sources

Can we be confident that Jesus even existed in history and was not just a legend? Historian Gary Habermas provides a list of 17 non-Christian ancient sources such as the Roman historian Tacitus , the Jewish historian Josephus, The Jewish Talmud, Pliny, and Julius Africanus. (See Gary Habermas: Ancient Non-Christian Sources.) These ancient sources help to confirm various details about Jesus’ life, crucifixion, miracles, and the early Christian movement, although they disagree about the interpretation of these facts. These details include the following:
(a) Jesus was a wise man (Josephus).
(b) Jesus performed deeds referred to as sorcery in the Talmud.
(c) Jesus alleged to be illegitimate son in the Talmud. (See David Instone-Brewer’s paper, “Jesus of Nazareth’s Trial in the Uncensored Talmud.)
(d) Jesus was put to death under Pontius Pilate (Tacitus, Josephus).
(e) Some believed Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah (Josephus).
(f) Jews and Gentiles became his disciples (Josephus).
(g) Thallus interpreted the sky’s darkening following Jesus’ death as an eclipse (Africanus).
(Ankerberg & Burroughs, 90-97).

1d.Manuscript Preservation

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 provides helpful evidence of the bible’s preservation and integrity. A comparison of the book of Isaiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls dated approximately ~125 BC with the Masoretic text almost a thousand years later (A.D. 916), shows that the meaning has been well preserved over time.

Were there really 400,000 errors introduced through copying?
The figure of 200,000 to 400,000 errors in manuscript copying comes from Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus. However, this figure is highly misleading. Daniel Wallace explains if one word was misspelled in 4,000 manuscripts, it was counted as 4,000 errors by critics (Wallace). Blomberg explains that that those alleged 200,000 to 400,000 errors are really spread across 25,000 manuscripts, which means an average of 8 to 16 unique variants per manuscript. Furthermore, Daniel Wallace says less than 1% of these variants affects the meaning of the text and none affects any essential doctrine (Wallace). A large number of these are inconsequential variants related to spelling, word order changes, or synonyms. (Ref) Geisler argues that by the same counting method, there are 1.6 million errors in Ehrman’s own book Misquoting Jesus, if we multiply 16 minor errors in the first printing by 100,000 copies of his book (Geisler, Christian Apologetics).

1e. Manuscript copies (Bibliographical Test)

Isn’t it a problem that we lack the original manuscript (autographs)?
Geisler/Turek argues that it may actually be a good thing we do not have the original manuscripts in someone’s hands, because of the risk that he/she could alter it. They point out that having copies spread all over the ancient world makes it difficult for any one person to alter it, since reconstruction allows for the identification and correction of variants and changes (Geisler/Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist).

What is the value of having manuscript copies?
Although we lack the original manuscripts (autographs) of the Bible, we have an abundant number of ancient manuscripts in the form of copies, translations, and citations– more than what other major ancient writings have. This abundance of manuscripts of different textual traditions allows us to compare, contrast, and cross-check them against one another and reconstruct the original with high accuracy (Geisler/Turek, 229). For the Old Testament manuscripts, we have multiple textual traditions, including (a) Hebrew/Masoretic, (b) Septuagint translation in Greek in ~250 BC, (c) the Samaritan Pentateuchal textual tradition, and (d) the Syriac version written in the Aramaic language of Syria after the Septuagint. For the early copies of the New Testament, we have approximately 5800 handwritten Greek manuscripts and manuscript portions, 10,000 Latin Vulgate, and 9300 other versions (over 24,000 combined) (McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict and The Bibliographical Test Updated).

Stronger and earlier attestation than most ancient works
In contrast to 5795 copies of the Greek New Testament less than 100 years after the original, we have 1757 copies of Homer’s Illiad (ranked #2, updated as of 2012), with time gap of ~400 years from the original. After Homer’s Illiad, many other works have fewer than several hundred manuscripts. The existence of early copies implies if there were any changes in the text, it happened early on. (See The Bibliographical Test Updated).

Princeton professor Bruce Metzger estimated the accuracy of copying the Mahabharata of Hinduism is 90% and accuracy of copying the Iliad is about 95%, whereas the accuracy of copying the New Testament is about 99.5%, without affecting any Christian doctrine (Geisler/Turek, 229). In contrast, we lack such manuscript evidence for the Book of Mormon.

1f. Early citations of the Bible.

The early church leaders also quoted from the Bible over 36,000 New Testament quotations. It has been said that every book has been cited within about 1 generation. Thus, if the Bible were contaminated, it must have been very early on. Even if we had no manuscripts, Geisler/Turek say we could still reconstruct the New Testament from the quotes of the early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and others, who quote the New Testament 36,289 times. This would account for all but 11 verses of the New Testament (Geisler/Turek, 227-228).

1g. Early date of writing by eyewitnesses

Much of the Bible was written by eyewitnesses (2Peter 1:16-21Luke 1:1-3). Since there were many living eyewitnesses who had seen various events related to Jesus, and the accounts were circulated early on, the eyewitnesses were available to confirm or deny the truth of the writing. 1Corinthians 15:3-6 provides a list of the eyewitnesses of the resurrection including the twelve apostles, and 500 brethren.

The following are some evidence of the New Testament’s early date:

  • The early church fathers Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp quoted passages from 25 of 27 books of the New Testament between AD 95 and 110, giving evidence that the New Testament was written before 100 AD. Time was also needed for circulation across the ancient world, with Clement in Rome and Polycarp hundreds of miles away in Smyrna (Geisler/Turek, 235-237).
  • Geisler and Turek say if we read a book about the World Trade Center which did not mention its destruction, we would expect that it was written before September 11, 2001. Using this principle, they suggest that the New Testament was written before the temple destruction in AD 70, because otherwise we would expect mention of this significant event that Josephus called the greatest war of all times, in which Jews lost their country, capital city, and temple (Geisler/Turek, 247-249). Similarly, we expect the meticulous account in Luke, which records Stephen’s execution but not Paul’s, to be written before Paul’s execution during the reign of Nero which ended in AD 68. Acts is probably written before AD 62 because James is alive in Acts and we know from Josephus that James the brother of Jesus was killed in AD 62 (Geisler/Turek, 239-241).
  • Conservative British scholar John Wenham makes a case that the first three Gospels were written before A.D. 55 (Matthew at A.D. 40, Mark at A.D. 45, and Luke no later than A.D. 51-55).
  • Even the liberal bishop John A.T. Robinson argues the entire New Testament was written and in circulation between A.D. 40 and 65. (Geisler/Turek, 243). Critics at one point dated the gospel of John to the late 2nd century, but later, a papyrus was discovered with John 18 written on it, and was scientifically determined to be no later than 125 A.D. Since the fragment was merely a copy, the original must have been earlier.

For the Old Testament, we also have evidence that it predates Jesus’s life on earth:

  • The Septuagint, the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, completed by ~247 BC, and Ref
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls, which contains a manuscript of Isaiah carbon-dated to approximately 125 B.C. This stands in contrast to some other major religions with written material at least a century after the founder’s existence. There is no eyewitness account to Muhammad’s encounter with the angel (Strobel, Case for Christ, ch.14, 336). For religions like Buddhism or Zoroaster, the scriptures were written much later after the founder existed. E.g., Gautama lived around 566-486 BC or 448-368 BC, but the earliest Buddhist scriptures (mostly on monastic practice) were written near the end of the 1st century BC and the Buddhacarita (The Acts of the Buddha) was written around the 2nd century AD. (Strobel, Case for Christ, ch.4, 114). In contrast to the New Testament gap of about 25 years between the original manuscript and first surviving copy, the Iliad has a gap of ~400 years. See 1e. Manuscript copies. 

Together, all of these various sources provide strong evidence for the historicity of the Bible.

If this evidence is accepted, it would be hard to believe that Jesus never existed, or that the Bible was invented long after the alleged time of Jesus’s time on earth.

2. Content

2a. Unity in its central theme of redemption throughout all 66 books.

The overall unity of the bible is amazing when we consider that it was written by over 40 writers of different walks of life spanning 1,500+ years, 3 languages, and 3 continents. The Bible has a “Scarlet Thread,” i.e., a plan of redemption inclusive of the Gentiles, unveiled through the Bible as early as Genesis 12.

2b. Prophetic Accuracy

Detailed, accurate prophecy, by men spanning thousands of years, fulfilled against the odds, even within the time constraints specified in the Bible. For more information, see Why Biblical Prophecy is Compelling.

2c. Typology

Typology is the study of types of Christ, stories in the Old Testament that foreshadow Christ, shows amazing unity between the Old Testament and New Testament. The following are just a few:

  • Abraham, the father of the Jews, was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac as commanded by God, in faith that God could resurrect him, but God stopped him once he knew that Abraham was faithful and provided another sacrifice instead. This foreshadows how God would later sacrifice and then resurrect His only Son Jesus, who died for our sins in our place.
  • Jacob’s son Joseph in the book of Genesis endured many of the same sufferings as Jesus– he was hated, mocked, plotted against, stripped of his robe, sold for silver, held in captivity between 2 guilty men, and unrecognized by his own.
  • After the Israelites had sinned, Moses put a bronze serpent on a pole in the desert so that whenever someone was bitten by a snake, he could look at the bronze serpent and be saved. This foreshadows salvation through faith in Jesus (John 3:14-16).
  • Jesus is like the Passover lamb. The Passover lamb had to be physically perfect and without blemish. Its blood was shed and applied to the side posts and upper door post of the house, so the angel of death would pass over and not bring the plague upon the Israelites that was brought upon the Egyptian first born (Exodus 12, 1Corinthians 5:7John 1:29). Jesus was perfect and his blood was shed so that those who believe in Him might be passed over. In communion, the cup of wine represents the blood of Jesus (1Corinthians 11:25).
  • The spring biblical holidays feasts foreshadow Jesus’s 1st coming: Passover (Death), Unleavened Bread (Burial), First Fruits (Resurrection), and Pentecost 50 days later (Holy Spirit). The fall biblical holiday feasts foreshadow Jesus’s 2nd coming: Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Feast of Booths.

2d. Ethical/spiritual truths

We can also examine how the spiritual insights of the Bible are consistent with the experiences we have from our conscience (Romans 2:15), spiritual convictions (John 16:8), and personal experiences of the Bible’s promises, etc. When we judge others, we indicate that we do have moral knowledge. By doing the very things we judge others for, we make ourselves without excuse (Romans 2:1).

When we take steps to do what Jesus says, the fruit of obedience may provide evidence that Jesus’ advice is wise (See John 7:17).

2e. Inconsistencies

There have been potential inconsistencies in translations the Bible. Although this may be unsettling, sometimes these are really obvious typos or misprints in translations or copies (e.g., one printing of the King James Version accidentally omitted ‘not’ in one of the ten commandments calling against adultery, drastically changing its meaning.)(Taking a Stand for the Bible). However, because we have so many manuscripts, it helps us to quickly identify typos. Other times, these inconsistencies are a result of understandable mistranslations. Because a Hebrew word may have multiple meanings, the translator may use the wrong meaning. Sometimes two accounts may only appear inconsistent on the surface, but an expert can help to reconcile them.

3. Peer review and Critiques

3a. Endorsement by Experts and Critics

Different experts have examined the Bible by standards of law, archaeology, manuscript evidence, science, etc. In the process, even critics have gained respect for the Bible. Scholars, including law professors, who tried to disprove the resurrection found a lot of supporting evidence instead.

3b. Living eyewitnesses

Living eyewitnesses wrote the Bible, some of which died for the truth, including Jesus’s brother James and Paul. If someone dies for a truth they believe only on faith in another’s testimony, their death is no evidence. However, if someone provides an eyewitness account, then their death at least indicates sincerity of their account. If James did not believe that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the messiah’s genealogy, would he have died for the faith?



3c. The Canon

The early church had to agree on the books that would form the New Testament. Most of these New Testament books are said to have been accepted by the ancient church with unanimity. The Canon was selected based on criteria such as the authorship by an apostle (or close associates of the apostles, in the case of Mark and Luke), wide recognition by the churches, and conformity to standards of sound doctrine preached in the churches.

Books like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and Acts of Pilate, which were written well past the apostolic age, were considered legendary or heretical, and were not included in the Canon. No ancient writings argue for acceptance of these 2nd, 3rd century books, except by heretics like Marcion or the gnostics. The Apocrypha were not accepted by Jews and Christians in the early centuries of the Christian era, which is evident from a study of writings of Josephus and Augustine.

4. Motive

4a. Embarrassing Testimony

The Bible exposes the faults of its heroes, like King David’s adultery and murder. The disciples were not portrayed in the best light, either– we see they were uneducated, rash, unbelieving, falling asleep when they are supposed to pray, and so on. Embarrassingly, Peter denied Jesus thrice. From the letter to the Corinthians, we see there was disorder in the church. The Bible also mentions female witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, even though women were not considered reliable witnesses during that time in the Jewish culture, and their testimony would have been looked down upon. Someone who was power hungry probably would not have wanted to include such weaknesses in the account (Geisler/Turek, 275-279).

4b. Lack of political agenda of the early church

In the Bible, Jesus, in his first coming, showed no intentions to be the political saviour desired by the Jews. Instead, he died on a cross. This may be one reason why many of the Jews did not accept him, as they expected a political saviour, but were not rescued by Jesus from Roman rule.

4c. Apostles suffered and died for the truth they witnessed

The apostles were eyewitnesses themselves. Would they have been willing to suffer persecution and death for what they knew to be a lie?

4d. The early church spread by persecution rather than conquest

Persecution contributed to the spread of the early church. Contrast this to another religion, which is reputed to have spread largely by the sword/warfare (Strobel, Case for Christ, ch.14, p.336) and marriage alliances.

4e. The unbelieving Jewish have no motive to manipulate the manuscript to support Jesus

Jews who did not believe in Jesus had no motive to manipulate their scriptures to contain the prophecies of Jesus.

5. Reputation/Expertise/Credibility

Besides considering the reputation for the Bible, we can also consider the reputation of extra-biblical critics, such as archaeologist Sir William Ramsay (originally skeptical of the bible’s credibility), scientist Stephen Hawking (atheist who attests to the amazing design of the universe), and former skeptics of the resurrection, such as renowned skeptic Dr. Simon Greenleaf, professor emeritus of law at Harvard University and Thomas Arnold, professor and former history chair at Oxford, author of History of Rome.

Sources

  • Ankerberg, John and Dillon Burroughs. Taking a Stand for the Bible: Today’s Leading Experts Answer Critical Questions About God’s Word. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2009.
  • McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999
  • McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1977, 2005.
  • Limbaugh, David. Jesus on Trial: A Lawyer Affirms the Truth of the Gospel. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2014.
  • Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
  • Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000
  • Habermas, Gary P. and Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.
  • Powell, Doug. Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics. Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2006
  • Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.
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Disciple of Jesus, married to Peggy, with 5 grown up children, 7 grand children, ex-Canadian military and residing in beautiful Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. a.k.a. "Papa"

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Posted in Apologetics, Defending Christianity, New Testament, Old Testament
2 comments on “Examine Evidence for the Bible’s Reliability | Amy Wang
  1. bcparkison says:

    Reblogged this on moreinkpleaseblog and commented:
    Time is sooner rather than later.short…we need to get our act together

  2. bcparkison says:

    I’ve re-posted this. Thanks.

Comments are closed.

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