In week 1 of our new series, we spoke about the historical reliability of the Resurrection. You can listen to the sermon from your church here. Along with questions about the reliability of the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, many people have questions about the historical reliability of the Bible in general. The following is content we used to include in our Midtown Class that discusses how confident you can be in the historical reliability of the Scriptural texts.
Why Should I Trust the Bible is Accurate?
Some people struggle in trusting the early copies of each original book of the Bible are trustworthy. To help bolster your confidence in the early copies I would like to simply compare the New Testament books with various other books that are widely read and accepted in Western literature. In so doing I want to show you how trustworthy the earliest copies of the Bible are because we have so many manuscripts, and those manuscripts are so close to the original writings of the New Testament. We will look at two general tests for determining the historicity of any ancient text: the bibliographical test (number and quality of manuscripts), and the internal test (the consistency of the text to not contradict itself).
You can find our blog outlining test #2: The Internal Test here.
Test #1 – The Bibliographical Test
The bibliographical test seeks to determine the quantity and quality of documents, as well as how far removed they are from the time of the originals. The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, about 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and another 1,000 manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Coptic, etc.).
*Taken directly from Ken Boa’s “I’m Glad You Asked” page 78
The age of the biblical manuscripts is also excellent. Likely the oldest manuscript is a scrap of papyrus (p52) containing John 18:31–33 and 37–38, dating from AD 125–130, no more than 40 years after John’s gospel was likely written. A non–Christian scholar, Carsten Peter Thiede even claims that he has dated a fragment of Matthew to about 60 AD. By comparing the ancient manuscripts we find that the vast majority of variations are minor elements of spelling, grammar, and style, or accidental omissions or duplications of words or phrases.
Only about 400 (less than one page of an English translation) have any significant bearing on the meaning of a passage, and most are footnoted in Modern English translations. Overall, 97–99% of the New Testament can be reconstructed beyond any reasonable doubt, and no Christian doctrine is founded solely or even primarily on textually disputed passages.
The Scripture quoted in the works of the early Christian writers (most 95–150 AD) are so extensive that virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed except for 11 verses, mostly from 2 and 3 John.
A Curious Discovery
Critics of the accuracy of the Bible routinely claimed that it was, in fact, a series of fables and legends that had developed over hundreds of years because there were not enough copies of ancient manuscripts to alleviate their skepticism. Curiously, a simple shepherd boy dealt a deathblow to their criticisms in 1947. He wandered into a cave in the Middle East and discovered large pottery jars filled with leather scrolls of the Bible that had been wrapped in linen cloth. Amazingly, the ancient copies of the books of the Bible were in good condition despite their age and harsh climate because they had been well sealed for nearly 1,900 years. What is now known as The Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of some 40,000 inscribed ancient fragments. From these fragments, more than 500 books have been reconstructed, including some Old Testament books such as a complete copy of Isaiah.
Simply, if someone seeks to eliminate the trustworthiness of the New Testament then to be consistent they would also have to dismiss virtually the entire canon of western literature and pull everything from Homer to Plato and Aristotle off of bookstore shelves and out of classroom discussions.