Many ideas abound today about the historical reliability of the Bible. Many think it is an outdated book full of stories that don’t apply to society anymore. Some people think it was written and compiled in a dark room by powerful men who wanted to use it to subvert the weak. Others see it as a book with good rules to live by but nothing more. Still others hold it to be the inerrant and infallible written word of God. Overall, though, there is a profound ignorance about the origins and reliability of the Bible. There is simply a profound lack of knowledge of the best selling book in history.
Historians view the Old and New Testaments separately because “…much of the evidence is different” (McDowell 69). The New Testament, the focus of this paper, tells the story of Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent ministry of His apostles. The New Testament can be proven reliable through textual criticism, internal evidence in the texts, and external evidence including ancient extra-biblical writings and archaeology.
The original manuscripts, or autographs, of the New Testament are gone. They have most likely “…disintegrated into dust more than a thousand years ago” (Jones 19). The manuscripts we do have are copies of copies, and no two manuscripts are exactly the same. So how can we know they are reliable, and how is the original meaning of the text reached? The answer is through textual criticism.
Textual criticism is “[t]he study of various copies of a manuscript with the goal of determining the wording of the autograph” (Jones 18). Since textual criticism involves comparing manuscripts, the number of manuscripts available to compare has a great deal to do with how accurately you can determine what the original text said. It is actually one of the most important aspects in textual criticism. In his book The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell quotes F. E. Peters: “On the basis of manuscript tradition alone, the works that made up the Christians’ New Testament were the most frequently copied and widely circulated books of antiquity” (34). McDowell goes on:
"There are now more than 5,686 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions, and we have close to, if not more than, 25,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today." (McDowell 34)
The number of New Testament manuscripts dwarfs any other work of antiquity. “Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad…There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today” (Strobel 60). Scholars rarely, however, question the reliability of The Iliad’s text.
Another important point to consider in textual criticism is the age of the documents being examined, and how far removed they are from the original autograph. Again, the Bible is the clear winner compared to other books of antiquity in terms of the closeness of the copies available to the originals. The Iliad was written around 800 B.C. The earliest copy is from around 400 B.C., a 400 year gap. Other popular ancient manuscripts such as those from Herodotus and Plato are separated from the originals by at least 1,000 years. In comparison, the Bible was written from A.D. 50-100. The earliest fragment is dated around 114, while an almost complete copy has been dated to 250 (McDowell 38).
Skeptics often point out the numerous differences between the ancient manuscripts of the Bible. Since all ancient manuscripts were hand copied by fallible human beings, discrepancies naturally entered the text. Most scribes tried to copy manuscripts faithfully, while others did minor, and sometimes major, editing. Well known Christian-turned-agnostic, Bart Ehrman, says in his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, “Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more” (89). This, however, may be a little misleading.
"Ehrman’s estimate of 400,000 variants among the New Testament manuscripts may be numerically correct—but what Ehrman doesn’t clearly communicate to his readers is the insignificance of the vast majority of these variants.
Most of these variations stem from differences in spelling, word order, or the relationships between nouns and definite articles—variants that are easily recognizable and, in most cases, virtually unnoticeable in translation." (Jones 43, italics his)
The way variants are counted also adds to these high numbers. For instance, when counting variants, if one word is misspelled in 1,000 manuscripts, it’s counted as 1,000 variants (Strobel 64-65). As amazing as it sounds, there are 20,000 lines that make up the New Testament, but only 40 of them in dispute (Bible Manuscripts). The level of accuracy shown by the New Testament is unrivaled by any other ancient document. Even in the 40 disputed lines of text, no doctrine of Christianity is put in jeopardy.
Many think the text of the Bible provides enough evidence internally to explain away most questions. John Warwick Montgomery argues that scholars need to follow “Aristotle’s dictum that the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself” (Montgomery 29). The gospels were written by people who were eyewitnesses, or were recording eyewitness testimonies of the ministry of Jesus. All of these people were equally reliable sources (Montgomery 29-30). Since the writers used primary sources, their writings should be considered reliable. Additionally, the Pauline epistles, which were written several years before the gospels, confirm many aspects of all the gospels. Take, for example, the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. "(NKJV 1 Cor. 15.3-8)
This agrees with the resurrection accounts in the gospels, giving the gospel accounts greater credibility.
Writings of early church leaders and early non-Christian historians outside of the New Testament also help confirm the New Testament’s reliability. Citations of Scripture by early church fathers in the Patristic period (A.D 100-400) aren’t primary sources, but they do serve two very important secondary rolls. First, they support the existence of the twenty-seven authoritative books of the New Testament canon. While their quotations were often loose, in some cases the Fathers were very accurate. Nonetheless, they at least reproduce the significant content of the original writings. Second, the citations are so numerous that if there were no manuscripts of the New Testament in existence, the New Testament could be reproduced using the early church Father’s writings alone (McDowell 42-43).
In addition, Papias, the bishop of Heirapolis in A.D. 130, was alive at the same time as the apostles. He recorded the sayings of “the Elder” (the apostle John):
"The Elder used to say this also: 'Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he (Peter) mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake writing down in this way some things as he (Peter) mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, not to include any false statement among them.'" (McDowell 53)
Other early church writers include Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and many others.
Non-Christian writers and historians of the first century mention the church and some events that are recorded in the New Testament. Although some of these writings were actually attacking Christians, they ironically end up affirming that the early church did believe what the church of today believes, contrary to some critics.
Josephus was a first century Jewish historian. His writings do much to affirm the Bible as a whole. He confirms the existence of Jesus and His brother James, when writing about the High Priest, Ananias: “...he assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others…” (qtd. in McDowell 56). He also confirms the existence of John the Baptist when he wrote: “Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and very justly, as punishment of what he did against John, who was called the Baptist” (qtd. in McDowell 56).
Another non-Christian writer, Pliny the Younger, a Roman author and administrator, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 112 describes early Christian worship practices:
They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (qtd. in McDowell 58)
Finally, archaeology has provided remarkable confirmation of the historical reliability of the Bible. Nelson Glueck, the renowned Jewish archaeologist has written: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference” (qtd. in McDowell 61). W.F. Albright also states:
"The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certain phases of which still appear periodically, 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." (qtd. in McDowell 61)
In other words, historians of the past who have used archaeology to try to discredit the Bible have been proven wrong with recent archaeological discoveries.
Archaeological discoveries that support the historical reliability of the New Testament include the court in which Jesus was tried by Pilate. The court had been buried for centuries, but was discovered recently to be the court in the Tower of Antonia. Another example is the Pool of Bethesda, recorded previously only in the New Testament. Found in 1888, it has been identified near the Church of St. Anne. The discovery of Yohanan, a victim of Roman crucifixion, corroborates the description of the crucifixion in the New Testament, including nails in the wrists and feet, and crushed legs. For years, historians doubted the existence of Pontius Pilate. Then in 1961, Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova discovered an inscription on a stone slab at Caesarea Maritima. On it was written in latin, “Tiberium; Pontius Pilate; Prefect of Judea.” These are just a very few examples of the archaeological evidence that supports the Bible (McDowell 66-67).
Do these facts prove 100% the historical reliability of the Bible? No, just like no historical fact could ever be proven 100%. But, through textual criticism, internal evidence in the texts, and external evidence including ancient extra-biblical writings and archaeology, the support for the reliability of the New Testament as an historical document is unparalleled compared to any other ancient document.
Research Paper Bibliography
"Bible Manuscripts." All About the Journey. 20 Apr 2008
Ehrman, Bart. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. 1. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Jones, Timothy. Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus". Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007
McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999.
Montgomery, John Warwick. History and Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964-1965.
The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version. Thomas Nelson Inc, 1997.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.