This will be a series of different angles on the question of the reliability of the Bible. Because the Bible is so central to the Christian faith in terms of teaching and authority we must ask the question of it’s reliability if we are going to hold it’s word as truth. The first question, I think we have to ask is, as above, Is it what was written?
That is: Is what we have in the Bible today what was originally written?
This topic is so large that really speaking an online post is never ever going to do it justice. So for further reading I’ve put some links and recommendations at the bottom for a more detailed account of the fact that the Bible we have today has the same content as when it was put together originally.
But some brief points to help us along (and even being brief, there’s still quite a bit, which is encouraging).
1. Authentication – What documents do we have?
The first step is to ask how do you authenticate any historical document. Part of doing this is to do with the number of manuscripts you have (all manuscripts are copies… there are no originals for any ancient text) and how close the earliest copy you have is dated after the original is known to have been written.
I will summarise a couple of points in regards to this, but for a full rundown you can click here to see the full numbers compiled by Dr. Josh McDowell and Dr Clay Jones.
Basically, what this shows, is that there is no other document in history that even comes close to having the same amount of backup as the New Testament (I’ll get onto the OT soon).
Many, like writings of Caesar, Plato, or Heroditus have anywhere up to 10 manuscripts dated anywhere from 200 to 1300 years after the original was written. The second most copies we have of any work, is that of Homer, which currently sits around 1,800 copies dated conservatively 400 years after they were written.
Finally, the New Testament has an almost embarrassing number of manuscripts in comparison. with well almost 6,000 Greek manuscripts and over 18,000 early translations into various other languages. At least one of these copies is from within 50 years of the original with many more coming within the first 100 years.
So you can see that the New Testament has an incredible wealth of manuscripts to back up it’s authenticity.
There is also a huge amount of Old Testament manuscripts available (approx. 42,000, see here for details). However the majority of these are modern (by comparison), as they are mostly translations completed A.D. Some have argued that this may mean that they were either created or doctored by Christian sects in order to make them more compatible with the NT.
So there have been questions over what was originally written, but has it changed over time and is it now unrecognisable from where it started?
2. Have they changed at all?
One of the biggest finds of the 20th century was the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls were found on the outskirts of the Dead Sea, near the site of Qumran, in the 1940’s-50’s. They were, for some time, unpublished while they were authenticated.
These scrolls date back to between the Third Century B.C. to the First Century A.D.
There is much discussion on what is in these documents, but broadly speaking there are currently 981 documents that have been catalogued. Most of these are excerpts or entire texts from the Old Testament. They contain parts of every book of the OT except Esther. The rest of these documents are other religious texts from the same time period.
In a nutshell, however, what these documents have shown is that there is very little significant difference in what we have had in the modern translations of the OT, from what was found which was 1000 years older. While there are thousands of differences involving words round the wrong way, missing letters or similar (basically alot of mistakes you would expect with no spellchecker), there is no passage found that would alter anything of doctrinal import.
What both of these things show is that whether or not you’re talking Old or New Testament, there is a plethora of evidence showing that the Bible is as it was written. The Dead Sea Scrolls show the unchanging nature of the scriptures over a Millennia; and the New Testament Manuscripts have such a number and so close to when they were written that they are heads and shoulders (and most of the rest of the body) above any other ancient documents when it comes to reliability.
So I think we can be very confident that the Bible is as it was written and has been preserved through the ages to what we have in our modern Bibles.
Other questions will arise over it’s reliability which we will hopefully look at in due course. So the last thing I want to mention just briefly is how do you answer questions on this without having to memorise all these facts and numbers, which none of us have the time to do.
4. How do we respond?
This will be a quick point. Simply speaking, people who bring up this topic with you will be in one of two camps (I’m generalising): Either they will be genuinely questioning the Bible’s reliability or they will be using it’s unreliability (in their eyes) as an excuse not to believe.
Either way, I think your best option is to ask if they want to look at some specific details or examples. “If you have some time, would you like us to look at this together?” This is a nice gentle way of opening up conversation. If they are genuinely interested, they will respond; if they aren’t they will respond differently.
A Good Resource on this topic is “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell