The Christian faith is founded upon the belief that YHWH, God of Israel, is the Creator of the universe, and that He has fully made known His character and purposes through His Son, Jesus of Nazareth (Hebrews 1:1-3). God is high and holy, far greater than humanity and beyond his comprehension (Isaiah 55:8-9); the only way we humans can know anything about this God is if He makes it known to us by His revelation. Christians believe that God has indeed made such revelations through His selected agents, the prophets, His Son, and the Apostles, and the record of those revelations is preserved in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 3:2). The Bible, therefore, represents the revealed will of God for mankind, and as such represents important evidence grounding Christian faith and practice. On what basis can Christians, or for that matter anyone else, have confidence in the Bible as accurately presenting the revelations of God to mankind? Many have cast aspersions on various elements of the process by which we have obtained the Bible. Some suggest that many books which should be in the Bible were taken out; others doubt the validity of some of the books within it. Many wish to believe in some grand conspiracy whereby the text of the Bible was altered over time; others cannot believe that a text could be copied so many times and yet faithfully represent the original. Others may not dispute the transmission of the text but cast aspersions on its substance, denying the historical legitimacy of the Bible’s witness. How can we affirm the Bible as evidence for the Christian faith and practice?
“Bible” derives from the Greek biblia, meaning “books.” The form of the Bible as we have it today, with 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books, is often called the canon; the process by which it was fixed is called “canonization.” By Jesus’ day the trifold understanding of the Old Testament as the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings received general agreement (cf. Luke 24:44). The Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) contained other books written during the Persian and Hellenistic periods (400-100 BCE); no one considered them to be inspired, but they were considered profitable books for understanding (they now are known as the Apocrypha). The same was true for certain apocalyptic texts we consider part of the Pseudepigrapha (“false writings”). Only far later, and only within Roman Catholicism and Ethiopian Orthodoxy, were any such works considered inspired, canonized Scripture.
Within a generation of the Apostles early Christians appealed to their writings as authoritative. The Muratorian fragment, a papyrus text originating around 175, lists the books of Scripture, and the list is substantially similar to our current New Testament. Some early Christians accepted the inspiration of books like 1 Clement or the Epistle of Barnabas while having some doubts about 2 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation. Christians did not approach the question of inspired Scripture arbitrarily or capriciously; they looked for telltale evidence that the books in question were written by an Apostle or an associate of an Apostle and if they maintained the integrity of the message proclaimed by the Apostles. Such discussions were held over a three hundred year period; the majority of what we call the New Testament was never in doubt, and in the end it was agreed that the books within the New Testament derived directly from the Apostles and their teachings while the rest did not. You can put these views to the test, for all such books are easily accessible online. The books of the New Testament bear the marks of inspiration, while the rest do not.
From the day they were written until the middle of the fifteenth century, the books of the Bible were hand copied on papyrus or parchment. The process by which we make sense of all the different copies of the Bible and the variations among them is called “textual criticism.”
Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls we have compelling evidence of the effective transmission of the Old Testament. Complete copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew (called the Masoretic Text) date to the eleventh century, yet they provide substantially the same text as seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls (and most variants were already evident in the Septuagint or in other translations). We have great confidence, therefore, that our Old Testament today is the same as known in the days of Jesus.
There is an embarrassing wealth of manuscript evidence for the New Testament. There are no fewer than 5,686 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, in part or in whole. The earliest fragments date from the middle of the second century (𝔓52); the oldest nearly complete texts date from the fourth century (א and B). Even if we had no manuscript of any book of the New Testament we would be able to substantially reconstruct the text thanks to the voluminous quotations made by early Christians.
Many variants do exist; in total they represent only 0.5% of the text, and none alter any doctrine of the faith. The differences can be seen by comparing the King James Version with the English Standard Version or the New American Standard Bible. The geographic and temporal range of manuscripts militates against any serious claims of intentional textual corruption; it would have been impossible to manipulate and change all the texts across the known world, let alone the quotations and discussions of early Christians. For comparison’s sake, the next best attested ancient text, Homer’s Iliad, has come down to us in 643 manuscripts, with 95% consistency. If the New Testament is unreliable, then so is every ancient and early medieval text in our possession!
We can have great confidence that the Old and New Testaments have come down to us in substantially the same form as when they were first written. Such does not demand, however, that its contents are accurate; after all, we do not believe that the Greek gods came and fought amongst humans as recorded in Homer’s Iliad. How can we have confidence that the Bible accurately reflects the events it describes? Nothing can ever “prove” the Bible or that its events took place; instead, we look to corroborating evidence from other historical texts and archaeological discoveries to see if what is revealed in the Bible is consistent with its time and place or not. Time and again the evidence demonstrates that the Bible faithfully represents its time and place.
Certain practices of the patriarchs, such as Abraham’s taking of Hagar and Jacob’s marriage to four women, find parallels in ancient Mesopotamian evidence found at Mari; those practices are not in vogue in later times (cf. Genesis 16, 29-30). Israel as a nation is first mentioned in the Merneptah Stele (ca. 1205 BCE). Evidence of Israelites in the eleventh century BCE have recently been found at Khirbet Qeyafa; at Tel Dan an inscription was found speaking of the “house of David.” The Mesha Stele provides the Moabite account of the events in 2 Kings 3 and mentions YHWH and the house of Omri. Assyrian and Babylonian texts speak of the kings of Israel and Judah; fragments of texts and seals found in Israel bear the same names as many Biblical characters.
The same proves true of the New Testament. The Evangelists portray Jesus and His Apostles well as Jewish people living in Galilee during the Second Temple Period. Pilate’s name was found on an inscription in Caesarea; we are likely in possession of Joseph Caiaphas’ ossuary (bone box). Names and events recorded in Acts are consistent with known historical evidence (the death of Herod Agrippa I, Acts 12:21-23; Gallio as proconsul of Corinth, Acts 18:12; the Asiarchs as Roman rulers of Asia, Acts 19:31). Within a generation of the Apostles many Roman historians and authors attest to the existence and spread of Christianity and Christian views about Jesus (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3, 18.5.2, 20.9.1; Pliny the Younger, Letters 96-97; Tacitus, Annals 15.44).
The Bible thus proves consistent with its time and place; the revelation of God to His servants within it is credible. We have every reason for confidence in the accuracy of the transmission of the Bible, and that the books within it fully represent God’s revelation to mankind. May we put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him as He has made Himself known in Scripture!
Ethan R. Longhenry