We live in a pluralistic society with dozens of competing claims to truth. A bewildering variety of religions, philosophies, political ideologies and personal codes of conduct all attempt to convince us that they have special insights into reality and the proper way to live. To many people, the historic Christian gospel appears as just one more voice in the marketplace of ideas. All of this raises the question of why anyone should believe that what we have to say is any different. In other words, who is to say that Christians are right when we claim that the gospel is uniquely the truth?
Providing compelling reasons to people who question the Christian Faith is called Apologetics. We don’t have space in this article for more than a brief explanation of some of the more compelling pieces of evidence, so I will simply deal with some of the good reasons we have for believing the gospel under the following headings:
- The reliability of the Bible
- The amazing evidence for the Bible’s inspiration
- The compelling body of facts affirming Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the risen Savior of the world.
- The Evidence of History and Archeology
- The startling transformation of the disciples of Jesus
- The unstoppable spread of the gospel across time and cultures
- The millions of supernaturally changed lives over the past couple of thousand years.
The first thing we must tackle is the issue of the Bible, and specifically:
- Is the Bible trustworthy as a document? That is, can we understand our current Bible versions as accurately representing the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments? To answer this question we must rely on the evidence of the manuscript tradition. And, along with that is another question–
- Is the Bible inspired by God? In other words, is the Bible more than just a collection of merely human writings? Put simply, can we discern the hand of God in the books of the Bible?
OK, back to the first part of this question: You may already be familiar with the fact that the Bible comes from the ancient scriptural writings of the Jews, mainly in Hebrew, and from the Greek writings of the early Church. As far as anyone knows, no actual documents from the original writers still exist. That means we must rely on ancient manuscripts copies of these original documents. But how do we know that when we pick up the Bible to read Genesis or Romans that what we are reading is a faithful and accurate representation of what was originally written by say, Moses or the Apostle Paul?
Old Testament Evidence. Let’s begin with a quick look at the manuscript evidence for the Old Testament. What Christians accept as the Old Testament, Jews have been using for centuries as their sacred scriptures. By the way, they don’t call it the Old Testament: they use terms like Torah, Tanach or simply the Hebrew Scriptures.
Until 1947, the standard Hebrew manuscripts available for making copies of the Old Testament were the Massoretic Texts. These documents, dating from around 900 AD, were used as the basis for making more current copies of the Old Testament. Since the conventional date for the writing of the books of the Old Testament is between 1400 and 400 BC, and the Massoretic Texts date from around 900 AD, that leaves an average of more than 1,500 years between the originals and the copies being used for Old Testament study and translation. In other words, there appeared to be lots of time for copyists to make copying mistakes, or even deliberate changes.
But the situation changed in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated from before 100 BC and the collection includes every book of the Old Testament except Esther. So, suddenly we have manuscript copies a thousand years closer to the source.
These fragile manuscripts from well before the time of Christ have been compared with the Massoretic Texts in order to discover how much the material of Old Testament might have changed over centuries of copying. The result was the amazing discovery that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years between the Dead Sea Scrolls (around 100 BC) and the Massoretic Texts (around 900 AD). It proved what Jewish and Christian tradition had always claimed: that Jewish scribes followed rigorous copying procedures to ensure accurate transmission of the text of the Hebrew scriptures.
New Testament Evidence. If we are encouraged by the evidence for the Old Testament, the evidence for the integrity of the New Testament is even better. The text used for study and translation of the New Testament is derived from literally thousands of early manuscripts. Just for starters, there are the more than 5,000 manuscripts in the original Greek in which the books of the New Testament were written.
To be fair, not all of these manuscripts are complete copies of the New Testament. Some are just fragments of books. But even so, this is an impressive amount of evidence. Add to this, the very early copies of the New Testament in other languages, which can be used for comparison with the Greek copies, This adds up to a total of more than 20,000 early manuscripts on which our current New Testament is based.
Latin Vulgate: 10,000+
If that were not enough, virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from quotes found in the writings of early Christian leaders (called the Patristic Writings). These date from the Second to around the Seventh Centuries AD.
What does all of this tell us? Just that we can be highly confident that what we are reading in our mainstream English translations (or Spanish, French—or any other language) is a highly accurate rendering of what was contained in the original documents of the Old and New Testaments.
The issue of inspiration. The Bible is littered with claims that it is much more than just the words of its human authors. In the Old Testament, some writers passed on messages directly from God. For example Isaiah 44:6, “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” In fact, the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” (or its equivalent) appears more than two thousand times in the books of the Old Testament. Others received messages from God in dreams and visions, while still other writers like Samuel and Ezra saw themselves as guided by God to record events in Israel’s history.
In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the infallibility of the Old Testament in Matthew 5:18 and he cited other passages as predicting aspects of his life and ministry. Verses like 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 affirm the Old Testament to be from God. Then in 2 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter refers to Paul’s New Testament writings like Romans and Galatians as being inspired in the same way as the Old Testament scriptures.
However, the Bible is by no means the only book claiming divine inspiration. The Qur’an of Islam, the Book of Mormon and a variety of other religious books make similar claims. So, what evidence is there that the claims made in the Bible have any basis in fact? To answer this, we will look at the evidences of:
- Fulfilled prophecy, and of—
- The Bible’s uncanny insight into human nature.
Let’s take just the prophecies specifically fulfilled by Jesus:
- Jeremiah 23:5 says that the Messiah will come from of the family line of David. This is fulfilled in the life of Jesus in passages like Matthew 1:6 and Luke 3:31.
- Micah 5:2 gives Bethlehem as the place where Messiah will be born. Again, this is shown to be Jesus’ birthplace in Matthew 2:1. Some might bring up the fact that other of Jewish men in the First Century could make those claims. That is certainly true. Nonetheless, only those who could make these claims would have been candidates for Messiah. So, this shows that Jesus’ claims were at least valid.
- Messiah will be born of a virgin in Isaiah 7:14? Luke 1:26-35 claims this is fulfilled in the angelic announcement to Jesus’ mother, Mary. Again, some would point out that a virgin birth would be hard to prove. Granted, but on this point there is independent evidence that there was indeed some irregularity about Jesus’ birth. Oddly enough it comes from a source not exactly positive toward Jesus or Christianity–the Talmud of ancient Judaism. It says, in reference to Jesus’ birth: “His mother was Miriam (note—we call her Mary), a women’s hairdresser. As they say, ‘This one strayed from her husband’.”
The Talmud says in another place, also speaking of Mary, that she was, “… the descendant of princes and governors, who played the harlot with carpenters.” In other words, it was a well-known fact that Jesus birth was unusual.
Let’s move on to some things which would clearly be far-fetched for Jesus to fulfill through his own efforts:
- According to Isaiah 50:6, the Messiah will be beaten and spit upon. This was fulfilled in Jesus’ experience according to Matthew 26:67.
- His hands and feet will be pierced: predicted in Psalm 22:16 and fulfilled in Luke 23:33.
- His clothing will be divided by casting lots; predicted in Psalm 22:18 and fulfilled in John 19:23-24.
- His bones will not be broken: this is predicted in Psalm 34:20 and fulfilled in John 19:33.
- His side will be pierced, according to Zechariah 12:10. This is fulfilled in John 19:34.
One statistician calculated that the odds of Jesus accidentally fulfilling just eight of the more than sixty prophecies attributed to him would be on the order of 1 in 10 to the 17th power (that’s 1 in 10 with 17 zeros behind it). Plainly stated, the chances are simply astronomical [Peter Stoner in Science Speaks].
The Evidence of History and Archeology. How about the many historical and archeological confirmations of the Bible? Those who question the Bible sometimes ask questions like: “Don’t history and archeology show that the Bible contains significant errors, which bring the entire Christian Faith into question?”
Fortunately, many claims made by the Bible can be tested historically. People, places and events mentioned can be directly confirmed through various types of inquiry. For instance:
- The strange three-hour period of darkness which Matthew 27:45 describes as covering the land at Jesus’ death, and which is referenced to Amos 8:9-10. But can this be believed? The claim that darkness covered a significant portion of the Mediterranean world between noon and 3:00 pm on the day Jesus was crucified might seem a bit hard to believe. And yet there are those very intriguing references to such an event in non-biblical Roman sources.
For instance, the Second Century Greek author Phlegon, is quoted in the writings of Origen [Against Celsus, Book 2] as saying, “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.” Another mention of this event comes through the Third Century author, Julius Africanus who says concerning this mysterious darkness, “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me…”.
So why would the writer Africanus consider a solar eclipse to be unreasonable as an explanation for the darkness during the crucifixion? The answer is because a solar eclipse can only occur when the moon is directly between the earth and the sun. But Passover season, when Jesus was crucified, only happens when the moon is full—that is with the earth directly between the moon and the sun. In other words, a solar eclipse was impossible at that particular time.
Over the past century or so, a growing body of archeological evidence has also given its support to the overall picture of Bible events and conditions. During this time, several prominent archeologists have become convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly tends to confirm the Biblical record. For example:
- William Foxwell Albright (dates), of John’s Hopkins University and Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, said this in his book, The Archaeology of Palestine: ”The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible…. has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.”
- Dr. Nelson Glueck (dates), world-renowned expert of the archeology of Palestine and President of Hebrew Union College put it this way, “..it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted (disproved) a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made, which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.” Rivers in the Desert, pp. 31.
Here are some examples of archeological and anthropological confirmations of the biblical record:
- Legends of a catastrophic flood found among widely scattered ethnic groups worldwide cast an intriguing light upon the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9.
- The fact that Mesopotamia (parts of Iraq Iran and Syria) was the cradle of world civilization confirms the biblical account of early human culture from the early chapters of Genesis.
- Various ancient documents, such as the Ebla, Amarna and Nuzi Tablets both confirm and shed new light on various cultural practices of people mentioned in the Bible. (Thompson, pp.1654-55, 1633, 1883)
- In 1975 a clay seal surfaced, inscribed with the name of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, authenticating the existence of that biblical character.
- During archeological excavations in 1994 in northern Israel, workers found an inscription mentioning for the first time independently of the Bible, the Israelite royal House of David.
- Archeological findings at Delphi in Greece authenticate the words of Acts 18:12-17 that Gallio was governor of the city of Corinth in 51 AD. No mention of this fact had been available until this discovery at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Psychological Arguments. Moving on to evidence that might be described as more psychological, the Bible has what I would call a supernatural knack for accurately describing human nature. In example after example, it accounts in realistic detail, as no other religion or philosophy does, for the heights of our nobility as well as the depths and extent of our degradation.
Take for instance the case of King David who, in the book of Psalms, wrote some of the most moving devotional poetry ever composed, and yet who also deliberately committed sins of adultery and murder. I could cite numerous other examples from the lives of Abraham, Moses, Peter and others whose lives are praised for their faith and heroism but who also had very typical human failings.
What does this tell us? It seems to me pretty clear that the Bible realistically portrays human behavior. It also tells us that God is truly gracious in using real people to accomplish his will and in his urgency in redeeming us. In other words, the biblical accounts ring true as they show real people relating to God.
Given the Bible’s inspiration and reliability, we can go on to make a case for other aspects of the Historic Christian message. For example:
- The miracles of Jesus are a powerful indication that his claims of being the Son of God were valid. The Gospel accounts show Jesus doing things no one has done before or since. With a simple word, he healed the sick and raised the dead. He walked on water and turned water into wine.
Certainly other religions make claims that their founders worked miracles. But the way in which the Gospels depict Jesus as doing the miracles and then downplaying the sensational effects they generated, certainly says that these events were performed by someone extra special and that they were performed for purposes which have nothing to do with common publicity value.
Then of course there is the resurrection. Here is a topic worthy of discussion all by itself. The resurrection is the supreme evidence that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. From a historical point of view, it is clear that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Even his enemies agreed about that. But their explanation that Jesus’ disciples overpowered the guard and stole the body doesn’t fit with the demoralized spirit of the disciples at the crucifixion. It doesn’t fit with their initial unbelief when the women announced that his body was missing. Neither does it account for the dramatic change in the behavior of these disciples or the astounding growth of the early Christian movement.
The incredible impact of the Jesus’ resurrection shows that his crucifixion did achieve reconciliation with God and the making of a new humanity.
- Let’s move on to consider the absolute conviction of the Apostolic generation. Nearly all of them were willing to die horrible deaths for the message they proclaimed. The argument has been made in numerous other settings that it makes no sense whatever that men would willingly die such deaths if they knew (or suspected) that their message was false. Yet they remained unshakeable to the end. That fact communicates huge confidence that the gospel message is truthful.
- How about the impressive basic consensus of the Christian community which transcends generations and ethnicities. Whether it was the unprecedented coming together of First Century Jews and Gentiles through the redemption of Jesus, or the gospel’s appeal in the Early Middle Ages to the barbarian tribes of Europe, or its spread in more modern times to the diverse peoples of every continent, the message of Jesus resonates in every time and culture.
So the Christian message is not tied to a certain group of people or a particular era in history. It is truly trans-cultural and adaptable to a variety of peoples and situations.
- That brings us to a final piece of evidence: the changed lives of millions upon millions of individuals over the centuries. I could relate the stories of people like Augustine who changed from a philosopher critical of Christianity to the greatest defender of the Faith during those dark years when Rome was collapsing. Then there is John Newton, who was actively involved in Britain’s slave trade during the late 1700s, but who was transformed into an opponent of slavery and an advocate of God’s amazing grace.
These examples represent thousands more. In fact, the kind of proof for Christianity which is compelling to average people, isn’t the somewhat technical material we discussed earlier, but the truly changed lives of real believers living among us.
This is just a fraction of the evidence Christians can point to supporting the claims of Christianity. A complete course in apologetics includes much more extensive evidence and arguments for the Christian Faith. But let’s be realistic: none of the evidence is absolutely irrefutable. There will always be arguments against any of the points we could make.
But then, for nearly everything in life, fool-proof evidence is hard to come by. Even in our courts of law, jurors are asked to decide difficult cases based upon evidence that is merely “beyond a reasonable doubt”. So what I have presented may simply be dismissed by those heavily committed to other points of view. It boils down to this: I believe that, taken together, the evidence for the Christian faith is compelling in a way, which no other religion or “rival gospel” can match. In other words, the evidence for Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world authenticates itself in every area of human inquiry and experience. That means we can share the good news about his with great confidence.
Michael Bogart (I owe much of the data for this article to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell.)
Until 1947, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts available to serve as the basis for Old Testament study and translation were the Massoretic Texts of eastern European Jews. These texts of the Hebrew Scriptures date from around 900 AD. The translators of the Authorized Version (King James Version) used these texts as the basis for their Old Testament translation.
Besides the Massoretic texts, the Christian Church had always used the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament made around 200 BC. The Septuagint was used to compare with Hebrew Massoretic Texts to check meaning and accuracy. In the 1800 and 1900s other early Old Testament documents were discovered, adding more textual information.
Add to all of this, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) in 1947, and the huge impact made on biblical scholarship by these very ancient documents. The Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls of Qumran date from the 200s BC to the 100s AD and include every book of the Old Testament except Esther, as well as other kinds of writings. These have been compared with the Massoretic Texts, the Septuagint and other manuscripts to discover how much the text of the Hebrew scriptures may have changed over time as manuscripts were copied.
The result was the amazing fact that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years of copying from 200 BC to 900 AD. The only major differences in the texts were the Massoretic invention of Hebrew vowel points as a refinement over the mainly consonantal biblical Hebrew.
So, the tradition that Jewish scribes used extreme care in copying the scriptures proved to be correct and those who study and live by the Old Testament can do so with confidence.
The chart below represents a comparison of certain popular English Bible versions. The chart is listed in the following categories:Bible Version; Year Completed; Group of Origin and Reading Level (approximate).
CEV (Contemporary English Version) 1991 American Bible Society 5.4
KJV (Authorized or “King James” Version) 1611 Anglican / Puritan 12.0
LB (The Living Bible) 1971 Evangelical 8.3
MES (The Message) 2002 Evangelical 5.0
NAB (New American Bible) 1970 Roman Catholic 6.6
NASB (New American Standard Bible) 1971 Evangelical 11.7
NIV (New International Version) 1979 Evangelical 7.8
NKJV (New King James Version) 1982 Evangelical 8.0
NLT (New Living Translation) 1996 Evangelical 6.4
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) 1990 Mainline (gender neutral) 8.1
PHL (J.B. Phillips Translation) 1963 Anglican 4.0
RSV (Revised Standard Version) 1952 Mainline 10.0
The philosophical movements of the Enlightenment (roughly the 1700s) were a fundamental questioning of the certainties of the Middle Ages and a reaction to the clashes over truth during the Protestant Reformation. Traditional views in religion and culture came under severe inquiry and even open attack. For example, Rene Descartes questioned everything, except his own existence, then built the philosophy of Rationalism from one presupposition. “I think, therefore I am.”
Enlightenment thinkers reasoned that unless something made rational sense (rationalism) or can be tested and proved to the senses (empiricism), it should not be accepted. The Cosmos was seen as merely “the product of cause and effect in a closed system.” Enlightenment thinking obviously had a dramatic impact on religion, excluding the supernatural as a factor in real human experience. Religious dogma and doctrine were often questioned and discarded, not only by those of marginal religious commitment, but by some in both Christianity and Judaism.
In the early 1800s the philosophy of George Hegel took the next logical step. Hegel asked some basic questions: If the supernatural is not a factor in the routine workings of the Cosmos, how did things arrive in their present state? Are things moving in the direction of progress? If so, what mechanism causes things to progress?
Hegel’s answer was his dialectic process, which stated that the Cosmos is a closed system of cause and effect, driven by the conflict of thesis with antithesis (opposite forces, ideas, etc.). The interaction of these forces produces a blending of the two, which Hegel called synthesis. This process was thought of as a manifestation of Absolute Mind, which was thought to be the source of reality (similar to Brahman of Hinduism). Hegel’s basic philosophy quickly became the dominant theory in Western intellectual and academic circles. Variations of the Hegelian Dialectic were adapted to other disciplines, such as:
- Politics, in which Karl Marx preached the Communist theory of history and social change (1848).
- Biology, in which Charles Darwin posed the theory of Evolution as the explanation of life in its diversity (1858).
- The study of the Bible as a document in the Higher Critical Movement (beginning in the late 1700s).
Higher Criticism. The Higher Critics were led by German scholars such as K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who studied the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) using a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis, which was based on Hegel’s basic theory of progress and development. The premise of the Documentary Hypothesis was that the Pentateuch couldn’t possibly have been written in the form in which we now know it. The documents must have “evolved” over time into their present form, through a process similar to Hegel’s Dialectic, from primitive religious ideas and practices, ancient oral stories and legends and early written fragments of questionable historical value.
These diverse sources were then woven together over time by various editors, who blended and changed them into distinct religious documentary traditions (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly) within Israelite tribal groups. Finally, these four documents were further edited and combined into the current form of the Pentateuch. The Documentary Hypothesis opened the door to other Critical approaches to studying and understanding the biblical documents of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The basic flaw of the whole Critical approach is in making certain arbitrary assumptions:
1. History and religion should be understood as fundamentally naturalistic. True to its Enlightenment roots, the Critical view explains reality in purely naturalistic terms, dismissing the possibility of the supernatural. Miraculous accounts in the Bible are seen as embellishments made to gain credibility and power by certain groups and individuals, or merely legends perpetuated by simple tribal people.
2. Critical methodology is assumed to always be superior to other approaches. Wellhausen and other early critics took almost no notice of archaeological discoveries in their day, which sometimes disproved their assertions. Since then, the basic gist of Higher Criticism has never been revised despite a wealth of new information and findings, many of which have tended to support the accuracy of the biblical accounts.
3. The ancient Israelite peoples were ignorant nomads. For instance, the early Critics asserted that writing was extremely rare in ancient times and unknown to ancient Israelites. Yet ancient writing and documents are routinely uncovered by archaeologists. Egypt, Sumer, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Meso-America all had writing early in their histories. However it was expedient for the Critics to take the position that ancient Hebrews had little or no access to writing so that they could argue that, if figures like Moses and the other greats of the Scriptures existed at all, they couldn’t possibly have written a document of the stature of the Bible.
4. The Patriarchs are essentially legendary figures. Critics see Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the others as folk heroes, developed by people who needed to see their founding fathers as larger-than-life. Critics believe that the biblical stories of the Patriarchs actually tell us nothing about the Patriarchs themselves (including whether they actually existed). All that can be learned from the biblical accounts is what the times may have been like when the stories were first told, and what the composers of those stories thought life may have been like in earlier times.
Traditionalist Reactions to Higher Criticism. Traditionalists were initially caught unprepared by the critical onslaught of the late 1800s. At first, those loyal to the inspiration of scripture simply responded with vehement opposition to Critical views and denouncements of these new theories. This initial emotional reaction was followed in the mid and late Twentieth Century by more thoughtful scholarship, factual defense of the Bible and interaction with the views of critically-oriented academia.
Jewish Reaction. The more conservative groups within Judaism either defended the divine origins of scripture or took the approach that the origins of Scripture were irrelevant because the traditions have become a time-tested glue holding Jews together. The more liberal elements of Judaism have been influenced to large degree by Critical thought. Hence, they are freer to redefine traditional observance of the Law and accomodate the society around them.
Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox Reactions. The Vatican and the various Eastern Orthodox bodies have maintained their longstanding positions on the divine inspiration of scripture, though there is much internal debate on unofficial levels. The issue has not been quite as major among Roman Catholics or Orthodox as for Protestants, because both of these groups have other sources of divine authority besides the Bible. For example, both groups also accept the decisions of various ecumenical church councils on a par with the teachings of the Bible. Roman Catholics further accept the pronouncements of popes as binding.
Protestants. Protestant Christianity has been deeply divided on the issues raised by Higher Criticism.
Fundamentalist groups have flatly denied the arguments of the Critics, refusing to become involved in academic debate and becoming increasingly isolated culturally.
Evangelicals have been more willing to dialog with the larger culture. They have attempted to defend scriptural inspiration and reliability based on the disciplines of textual criticism and manuscript study. Since the mid Twentieth Century, Evangelicals have entered the debate over the reliability of scripture with growing confidence. However, the ascendancy of postmodern thought in the years just prior to the dawn of the Twenty-first Century has changed the focus of the debate away from the factually-based defense which Evangelicals have labored so hard to assemble.
Modernists have attempted to accommodate Christian faith and doctrine to the viewpoints of academia and of the larger society. In doing so, they have become culturally mainstream, but have tended to lose some of their Christian distinctiveness. This trend is attested to by their dramatic losses in church membership, as people have either ceased to think of themselves as particularly Christian, or have migrated to churches which emphasize distinctive Christian teachings.
The increasing influence of Postmodernism is moving all of the parties in this controversy toward a larger debate over the nature of reality itself. It will be interesting to see how each of them.
The traditional claim of the Christian Church is that the Bible represents the Word of God handed down through the centuries by God’s people. Judaism has, likewise, regarded that portion known to Christians as the Old Testament as having divine authority. Of course there is much more to Judeo-Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Bible than this, but for the purposes of this article we will begin by assuming the truth of these simple statements.
Flowing from the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of God in the writing of Holy Scripture is the question of the historical transmission of those documents. In other words, can we trust the copying process? Confidence in the Bible depends to a large degree on our confidence that the documents scholars use for modern Bible translations are faithful to the original writings. As far as anyone knows, none of the original manuscripts of the Bible written by the actual authors are still in existence. This fact leads to the very legitimate question of whether what we read in the Bible is really what was written down by Moses or Isaiah or Paul.
Because of the lack of proven original material, scholars must therefore rely on a comparison and analysis of manuscript copies to reconstruct the contents of the original text of the Bible. Scholars trained in the discipline of manuscript study study the various ancient copies available in order to sift out the small percentage of variant texts and synthesize the original content of the source document penned by the original writer. Without going into detail, the cumulative effect of decades of this study has yielded a very high degree of confidence in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
The manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures is quite strong (as already mentioned, Christians refer to this body of material as the Old Testament). While it might seem obvious that most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written in the Hebrew language, a few of the later portions are in a related language called Aramaic. This material of the Hebrew scriptures was probably composed sometime between 1400 and 400 BC by several dozen different authors, including Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, Ezra, and others.
Until 1949, the best and earliest manuscripts for the Hebrew Scriptures were known as the Masoretic Texts. These documents were copies of a chain of earlier manuscripts (now lost) made by Eastern European Jews between AD 800 and 1000. These texts had been the main source for the material used by both Jews and Christians for the Hebrew portions of the Bible. From the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment until the mid Twentieth Century, many critics of the biblical text argued that the accuracy of these fairly late manuscripts is likely to be very poor because of the long time-span (at least 1,300 years) from originals through a series of copies to the Masoretic Texts.
However, in 1947, through what some would call the providence of God, the textual integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures was overwhelmingly confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This large collection of miscellaneous scrolls, some of which date from as early as 200 BC, included very ancient copies of each of the book of Hebrew scripture, except for Esther. The scrolls were found carefully preserved in desert caves in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea. What scholars have discovered in studying these manuscripts is that, apart from a few very minor discrepancies, there had been virtually no change in the text of the Scripture in well over 1,000 years. Almost overnight, the argument that the manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Scriptures was doubtful suddenly became much less convincing.
In addition to the Hebrew manuscript copies, there is also an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made around 200 BC known as the Septuagint. A study of this translation in comparison with the Hebrew text further confirms the it manuscript integrity. So, based upon the evidence of the meticulous care with which the Jews copied their scriptures, as well as the insight provided by the Septuagint, we can have confidence that the material of the Hebrew Scriptures has a high degree of accuracy.
When it comes to the New Testament portion of the Bible, the evidence is even better. The books of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek (a kind of trade Greek) between AD 45 and 100, with the very earliest still existing manuscript portions dating from just after AD 100.
For example, there is a fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, which dates from around AD 110. Since the Gospel of John was likely written around AD 95, that puts the time from original to the earliest known copy at about 25 years. An even earlier manuscript portion, known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus, dates from the years just after AD 100. Since Paul probably wrote this portion some time during the years 55-65, this puts the time lapse from original to copy at less than 50 years. These examples illustrate the amazingly high quality of New Testament manuscript evidence compared with other examples of ancient literature. All told, there are something like 5,000 early Greek manuscript portions of the New Testament in existence today. Add to this evidence the many ancient Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian translations from the early centuries of the Christian Church. Working with these manuscripts, scholars are able to do intensive comparisons of the available manuscripts in order to “weed out” any copying mistakes and synthesize the original text of the New Testament.
Beyond the manuscript evidence, there exist a very large library of writings leaders of the early Christian Church (before 500 AD) which quote so extensively from the New Testament that it can be virtually reconstructed from those writings alone. One expert estimated that only one half of one percent (.05 %) of the New Testament is in any doubt as to the original wording, and most of the uncertainty has to do with word order, rather than content. So, just as with the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the New Testament is highly accurate.
All of this points to the conclusion that the Bible available to us is extremely reliable. It has lost very little, if anything, in its transmission from the original writings of its authors. While none of this by itself proves the Bible’s inspiration, it does lend credence to Judeo-Christianity’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures are the word of God, fully inspired and authoritative for the ages.