Should we really believe what the Bible says? How can we know if the Bible is reliable? Since the gospel of eternal life (i.e., salvation) through trusting in Jesus Christ is the primary focus of the New Testament, it is crucial to know if the New Testament is truly reliable (i.e., trustworthy).
If a person is not able to set aside his (or her) biases when considering the evidence, it is likely to be difficult for that person to determine if the Bible is reliable. Nevertheless, if it cannot be proven that the Bible is unreliable, there is no valid reason to regard it as unreliable. And, if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Bible is reliable, that should resolve the matter.
The major considerations that we will be discussing with regard to the reliability of the Bible are as follows:
- Integrity of those who wrote the Bible
- Internal consistency
- Biblical prophecy
- Proximity of New Testament writings to time of Christ’s ministry
- Ancient biblical manuscripts
- Other ancient writings
- Archaeological evidence
- The basis for determining true Scripture
Integrity of Those Who Wrote the Bible
Often, when people are testifying about events that they have seen or experienced, they will omit details that are embarrassing to themselves or to others about whom they are writing. This raises questions as to the reliability of their testimony. The Bible does not cause such a problem. In the Old Testament, the fact that people of renown, such as Abraham, Moses, and David, are shown “warts and all” is a strong indication of the veracity of those Scriptures. And, in the New Testament, Peter and others of the 12 apostles are frequently depicted as selfish, lacking faith in Jesus, or not understanding Jesus’ teachings.
On page 557 of The Story of Civilization, Volume 3, Will Durant, who spent many years analyzing records of antiquity, states that the writers of the New Testament “record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed – the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial [of being an associate of Jesus]. . . .”
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D. adds further perspective. On page 40 of Lee Strobel’s book entitled The Case For Christ, Blomberg says,
Consider the way the gospels are written – in a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings.
It seems quite apparent that the goal of the gospel writers was to attempt to record what had actually occurred.
Furthermore, during the early years after the New Testament documents were written, they could be examined by readers who had firsthand knowledge with regard to the facts and the evidence about Jesus Christ. On page 81 of his book entitled The Historical Jesus: A Continuing Quest, Charles Anderson, Ph.D., says, “The purity of the record . . . was guarded not only by friendly witnesses, but by those who were basically hostile to the new faith as well. Any elaboration or alteration of the events of Jesus’ life would have at once been challenged.”
In addition, it is doubtful that there are credible reasons to question the integrity of the men who wrote the New Testament. With regard to these men, Blomberg says on page 45 of The Case For Christ, “We simply do not have any reasonable evidence to suggest they were anything but people of great integrity.” Blomberg goes on to say, “In terms of honesty, in terms of truthfulness, in terms of virtue and morality, these people had a track record that should be envied.” Furthermore, the New Testament writers had nothing to gain by being dishonest or deceitful. In fact, most of them were killed for what they proclaimed.
It is, therefore, fair to conclude that there are sound reasons to believe that the Bible was written by men of integrity, and that the evidence is particularly strong with regard to the writers of the New Testament.
There may be some apparent discrepancies (i.e., inconsistencies) in the Bible that don’t seem to be reconcilable, based upon our current knowledge and understanding. However, such discrepancies may be resolved in the future. The past experiences of the author of this article have demonstrated that many apparent discrepancies can be resolved after further personal meditation, Bible study, and reading the commentaries of Bible scholars who can provide plausible explanations regarding such matters.
On page 137 of The Case For Faith, which is a second book by Lee Strobel, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., says,
I’ve made a hobby of collecting alleged discrepancies, inaccuracies, and conflicting statements in the Bible. . . . I have a list of about eight hundred of them.
[O]f the eight hundred allegations I’ve studied, I haven’t found one single error in the Bible. . . .
In The Testimony of the Evangelists, Simon Greenleaf of Harvard Law School, who is regarded as one of history’s most important legal figures and the author of an influential treatise on evidence, offered the following assessment, after studying the consistency among the four gospel writers: “There is enough of a discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them; and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction.”
Likewise, on page 46 of The Case For Christ, Strobel states that “German scholar Hans Stier has concurred that agreement over basic data and divergence of details suggest credibility, because fabricated accounts tend to be fully consistent and harmonized.”
Given that the writings of the Bible — most notably, the four gospels — are in agreement with regard to the basic facts, there is sound reason to believe that the Bible is internally consistent. The slight differences in certain details presented in the four gospels are probably attributable to the individual perspectives of those who wrote those manuscripts and/or to the Holy Spirit’s leading them to emphasize somewhat distinctive points.
Nathan Busenitz, an author of numerous articles and books, states on page 87 of his book entitled Reasons We Believe,
The Bible claims to be a true document that comes from God Himself. But if this is the case, the Bible must be reliable not only when speaking of past or present events, but also when predicting the future. This is an important point, since “a staggering 27 percent of the Bible deals with predictions about the future” [according to J. Barton Payne, an Old Testament professor, who produced the Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy].
On page 90 of his book, Busenitz notes,
Among books that claim to come from God, the Bible stands alone – not only because it contains so many predictions, but because those predictions repeatedly come true. “Nowhere is the uniqueness of the Bible more evident than in the supernatural nature of its prophecies” [according to Robert L. Saucy, on page 43 of Understanding Christian Theology].
Josh McDowell, a well-known Christian apologist, says on page 273 of his book entitled Evidence That Demands A Verdict,
The problems of most critics of predictive prophecy are their pre-suppositions that we live in a closed system, there is no God, miracles are not possible, and therefore there can be no predictive prophecy. . . . [T]hey read a book containing prophetic utterances and see the fulfillment at a much later date, and therefore conclude that the so-called prophetic utterance had to be at a later date.
On page 144 on his book, McDowell refutes one of the arguments against predictive prophecy:
If you are not satisfied with 450 B.C. as the historic date for the completion of the Old Testament, then take into consideration the following: The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, was initiated in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.). It is rather obvious that if you have a Greek translation initiated in 250 B.C., then you had to have the Hebrew text from which it was written. This will suffice to indicate that there was at least a 250-year gap between the prophecies being written down and their fulfillment in the person of Christ.
Geisler, on page 132 of The Case For Faith, supports McDowell’s comments with the following comments of his own regarding Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies:
[Y]ou have incredible predictions that were literally fulfilled in the life of one man, even though he had no control over most of them. . . . These prophecies were written two hundred to four hundred years in advance. . . . The Bible is the only book that’s supernaturally confirmed this way.
Some people believe that non-biblical sources have also made predictions that have been fulfilled. Nostradamus is one of the most frequently mentioned of these other sources. However, on page 133 of The Case For Faith, Geisler says,
Nostradamus’ predictions are very ambiguous and could fit a great variety of events. His followers are inconsistent in how they interpret what he said. And some of his prophecies have been shown to be false. In fact, not a single prediction of Nostradamus has ever been proven genuine.
The extraordinary number of fulfilled prophecies presented in the Old Testament, many of which the New Testament indicates were fulfilled by Jesus Christ, provide strong evidence that not only is the Bible to be regarded as reliable, but also that it was inspired by God. [For additional information about Biblical prophecies regarding Jesus Christ, click on “Was the Coming of Jesus Christ Prophesied?”]
Proximity of New Testament Writings to Time of Christ’s Ministry
An important factor in establishing the credibility of documents is the chronological and geographical closeness of the witnesses to the events that are recorded. If writers are not sufficiently close to events about which they are writing, they are more likely to make mistakes in describing those events, even when they are attempting to be honest. The shorter the interval between an event and when it is recorded in writing, the less likely it is that the account will be distorted by faulty memory.
Josh McDowell, on page 50 of More Than A Carpenter, a second book that he wrote, states, “The New Testament accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus were recorded by men who had been either eyewitnesses themselves or who related the accounts of eyewitnesses of the actual events or teachings of Christ.”
Similarly, Anderson, on page 35 of his book, says,
With the exception of the works by Luke and Mark, all [the books in the New Testament] claim to be the work of apostles either by direct statement or by implication. Both Mark and Luke were very close to apostles and presumably received the majority of their materials from them. This puts their works in the same general category.
And, Richard DeHaan, on page 3 of his book entitled The Bible – Can I Believe It?, states, “A number of current scholars, even those who deny the possibility of the supernatural, agree that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the book of Acts, and most of Paul’s epistles were indeed written by the men to whom they are ascribed.”
As for chronology, a number of sources indicate that the New Testament was complete – or, at least, substantially complete – not later than A.D. 100 and possibly as early as A.D. 70. (These sources include Craig Blomberg, F. F. Bruce, Josh McDowell, and Clark Pinnock.) Even the latter date does not allow sufficient time for possible manuscript corruption, according to various commentators.
Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence that at least one – and possibly all three — of the synoptic gospels, which provide many similar biographical accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, was written before A.D. 70. Since there probably were a number of people living at that time who were eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus Christ, including people who were hostile to Christian beliefs, they would have been able to confirm or deny the accuracy of a biographical account about Christ, and they would have made it known if it was exaggerated or false.
In light of the evidence, there seems to be more than ample support that most of the New Testament manuscripts were written within a few decades after Christ’s crucifixion, and that these documents were written by people who were either eyewitnesses themselves or who had direct access to other people who were eyewitnesses who could provide accurate accounts of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, because of the existence of even more eyewitnesses, it is highly unlikely that any New Testament biographical account about Christ would have survived if it was exaggerated.
Ancient Biblical Manuscripts
To ascertain if a document is an accurate translation of an original manuscript, it is necessary to determine if the wording is the same as for the original manuscript or if there have been significant changes. Thus, in assessing the authenticity of the Bible, it must be determined if there is sufficient reason to believe that the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that currently exist accurately preserve the original texts.
In 1947, the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. These scrolls, which date back to approximately 125 B.C., are Hebrew manuscripts of Old Testament passages. Commenting on these manuscripts, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart state on page 30 of their book entitled Answers to Tough Questions,
The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrated unequivocally the fact that the Jews were faithful in their transcription of biblical manuscripts.
Among the fragments discovered are complete copies or parts of every Old Testament book except Esther, and the variations in the text after a thousand years of copying are minimal.
In addition to the Dead Sea scrolls, there are a number of Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts that are dated around A.D. 900. These manuscripts are known as the “Masoretic Text,” because they were copied by Jewish scribes known as Masoretes. On page 6 of his book, DeHaan indicates that there are two principal reasons why these copies are considered very reliable. First, the Jewish scribes employed an “extremely meticulous and exacting method of copying the Scriptures.” The second reason is that the Masoretic Text is “almost exactly the same in every detail” as that of the Dead Sea scrolls.
With regard to the New Testament, DeHaan notes on page 7 of his book that more than 4,500 manuscripts with passages written in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written) have been discovered, and some of them have been dated as early as A.D. 130.
Although there are apparently no surviving original manuscripts of New Testament passages, the following excerpts from an interview with Bruce Metzger, Ph.D., on page 59 of Strobel’s book The Case For Christ, provide us with a high degree of confidence in the documents that we do have:
[W]hat the New Testament has in its favor, especially when compared with other ancient writings, is the unprecedented multiplicity of copies that have survived.
[T]he more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like.
We have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writing of the originals.
In addition to Greek manuscripts, we also have translations of the gospels into other languages at a relatively early time. . . .
[E]ven if we had no Greek manuscripts today, by piecing together the information from these [other] translations from a relatively early date, we could actually reproduce the contents of the New Testament.
Although there are many differences between the manuscripts, they tend to be minor, according to Metzger. This viewpoint is supported by Norman Geisler and William Nix, who, on page 367 of their book entitled A General Introduction to the Bible, state, “The New Testament . . . has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5 percent pure.”
On page 288 of his book entitled The Bible and Archeology, Sir Frederic Kenyon, who is acclaimed to be a scholar whose authority to make pronouncements on ancient manuscripts is second to none, provides the following conclusion with regard to the books of the New Testament:
[T]he last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both theauthenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.
Other Ancient Writings
Other than manuscripts that are considered to be exclusively copies of biblical passages, are there any ancient manuscripts that support the reliability of the contents of the Bible, particularly the New Testament? Clark Pinnock, on of page 77 his book entitled Set Forth Your Case, states, “While it is true that the original manuscripts of the four gospels have not survived, we do posses literally thousands of copies in codices [i.e., manuscripts] and papyrus fragments, and attestation in the writings of the earliest Fathers [of the Christian church].” Strobel notes on page 89 of The Case For Christ that these Fathers were the earliest Christian writers after the writers of the New Testament and that many of their writings “attest to the basic facts about Jesus.”
Furthermore, as DeHaan states on page 4 of his book, “The genuine nature of the New Testament books can . . . be seen in the fact that the church fathers . . . often quoted from these sacred documents as possessing special authority.” And, Metzger, on page 59 of The Case For Christ, declares, “[E]ven if we lost all the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we could still reproduce the contents of the New Testament from the multiplicity of quotations in commentaries, sermons, letters, and so forth of the early church fathers.”
In addition to the writings of the early church fathers, there are writings during the first century by non-Christians that support some of the most important facts mentioned in the New Testament. Perhaps, the most notable non-Christian writer during the first century was Josephus, a prominent Jewish historian who was not sympathetic to Christians, but who is considered to have been a fairly reliable historian.
F. F. Bruce, on page 112 of his book entitled The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, says,
Josephus did make reference to Jesus, bearing witness to (a) His date, (b) His reputation as a wonder-worker, (c) His being the brother of James, (d) His crucifixion under Pilate at the information of the Jewish rulers, (e) His messianic claim, (f) His being the founder of “the tribe of Christians,” and probably (g) the belief in His rising from the dead.
In addition to Josephus, there were other non-Christians during the first century whose writings support important New Testament facts, to some extent. Blomberg, on page 51 of Strobel’s book, The Case For Christ, says,
Many people had reason to discredit [the Christian] movement and would have done so if they could have. . . .
Yet look at what his opponents did say. In later Jewish writings Jesus is called a sorcerer who led Israel astray – which acknowledges that he really did work marvelous wonders, although the writers dispute the source of his power.
This would have been a perfect opportunity to say something like, “The Christians will tell you he worked miracles, but we’re here to tell you he didn’t.” Yet that’s the one thing we never see his opponents saying. Instead they implicitly acknowledge that what the gospels wrote – that Jesus performed miracles – is true.
In the same book, on page 87, Edwin Yamauchi, Ph.D., provides the following assessment of the information that is available from first century non-Christian sources regarding Jesus Christ:
We would know that first, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; and seventh, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside – men and women, slave and free – worshiped him as God.
If incidental details written by an ancient historian prove to be consistently accurate, it is highly likely that the other information the historian provides is also accurate, although there may not be any way to directly verify that the other information is accurate. This should be true for the Bible, as well as for other ancient writings.
The primary method of verifying historical details is by archeological evidence. On pages 128 and 129 of Strobel’s book, The Case For Faith, Geisler states,
There have been thousands – not hundreds – of archaeological finds in the Middle East that support the picture presented in the biblical record. . . . The patriarchs – the narratives about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – were once considered legendary, but as more has become known these stories are increasingly corroborated. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was thought to be mythological until evidence was uncovered that all five of the cities mentioned in Genesis were, in fact, situated just as the Old Testament said. As far as their destruction goes, archaeologist Clifford Wilson said there is “permanent evidence of the great conflagration that took place in the long distant past.”
As the great archaeologist William F. Albright declared, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament tradition.
Likewise, archaeology confirms the historicity of the New Testament. On page 22 of his book entitled Christianity: The Witness of History, James Anderson declares, “[A]rchaeological excavations have again and again vindicated the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents. . . .”
Furthermore, Blomberg, on page 50 of Strobel’s book, The Case For Christ, says, “Within the last hundred years archaeology has repeatedly unearthed discoveries that have confirmed specific references in the gospels. . . .” Subsequently, on page 100 of the same book, John McRay, Ph.D., commenting on the New Testament, states, “Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible.”
A fitting conclusion regarding archaeological evidence is provided by the following statements by Jeff Morrow in an article that he wrote entitled “Finding Faith,” which appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of Worldwide Challengemagazine:
Regarding the Bible, I found more archaeological artifacts and more historical documents verifying it than for any other document in history. So I concluded that the Bible is the most historically reliable document of ancient history. If I were to throw out the Bible as history, I would have to throw out every other document of ancient history as well.
The Basis for Determining True Scripture
How can we have confidence that the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular contain the inspired writings that God intends for mankind to have – neither too many nor too few?
For those who believe in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient God, the answer is that surely He has done whatever has been necessary to make certain that His Word to mankind contains all of the inspired writings that He intends for us to have. In the New King James version of the Bible, 2 Timothy 3:16a states, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God. . . .” Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that God, through the Holy Spirit, has guided the Christian church in determining which writings to include in the standard (i.e., canonized) Bible.
The following excerpts, which deal with the criteria that are believed to have been used by the Christian church in determining which writings belong in the Bible and which ones do not, are taken from pages 41-43 of the book entitledReasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics by Ron Rhodes, Th.D.:
When the Church formally recognized what books belonged in the canon, there were five primary tests that were applied. Here they are, listed in question format:
1. Was the book written or backed by a prophet or apostle of God? This is the single most important test.
2. Is the book authoritative? . . . Does this book ring with the sense of, “Thus saith the Lord”? Is it brimming with divine authority?
3. Does the book tell the truth about God and doctrine as it is already known by previous revelation?
4. Does the book give evidence of having the power of God? The reasoning here is that any writing that does not exhibit the transforming power of God in the lives of its readers could not have come from God.
5. Was the book accepted by the people of God?
Regarding the New Testament, F.F. Bruce makes the following statements on pages 13 and 14 of his book entitled Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament:
Certainly, the individual New Testament documents were in existence some time before they were gathered together in a canon (a list of authoritative documents). As for the ‘man-made’ decision about their inclusion in such a canon, or rejection from it, it must be remembered that there was nothing arbitrary about this ‘decision,’ nor was it a sudden, once-for-all matter. The first time that a church council promulgated a statement about which books made up the New Testament canon was in A.D. 393. . . . It perpetrated no innovation, but simply recognized the situation which had been established by Christian use and wont over the preceding two hundred years and more. Inclusion in a canon conferred on no book an authority which it did not already possess; the books were included in the canon because of the authority accorded to them individually throughout the Christian world from the end of the first Christian century onwards. . . .
As a result of God’s guidance of the Christian church through the Holy Spirit in determining true Scripture, and the well-reasoned criteria used by the Christian church in doing so, we can have confidence that the true Scriptures that God intends for mankind to have are indeed contained in the Bible.
There are many reasons to believe the Bible is reliable. The integrity of those who wrote the Bible has been established. Also, the writings included in the Bible have been shown to be internally consistent. Moreover, fulfillment of biblical prophecy provides strong evidence that, not only is the Bible reliable, but also that it was inspired by God. And, within a few decades after Christ’s crucifixion, the New Testament manuscripts were written by people who were either eyewitnesses themselves or who had direct access to other people who were eyewitnesses of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts that currently exist do accurately preserve the original texts. Besides, other ancient writings verify a number of the facts that are mentioned in the New Testament. In addition, there have been thousands of archaeological finds that support the validity of what is recorded in the Bible. Finally, we can have confidence that the Bible is comprised of the Scriptures that God intends for mankind to have.