Welcome! Thanks for joining us for this, our second post in our new year-long blog series we’re calling “Journey Together.” Our aim in this post is to dive further into whether we can trust the Bible.
The contents of the Bible were written over a period of over 1500 years, by 40+ authors from every walk of life: kings, fisherman, statesmen, poets, philosophers — even peasants. Some wrote in the wilderness, others in dungeons, some in a palace, and others while on military campaigns. And they wrote from three different continents, and in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Wow!
Can a book so unique really be factually and historically true? Is the Bible, as some believe, merely a “man-made” work of fiction — or a book guided by the hand of God?
“The case for the reliability of the New Testament,” asserts scholar and prolific writer Dr. Howard Vos, “is infinitely stronger than that for any other record of antiquity.” Let’s look at why he can confidently say this.
Trusting Historical Testimony
Because you and I weren’t there to see it for ourselves, we trust that our knowledge of the past is based on verified sources: written, oral, and physical testimony. Written testimony is a written record of what happened. Oral Testimony, the primary way in ancient times of faithfully passing history from one generation to the next, relied on meticulous storytelling. Physical testimony is tangible evidence, such as a fingerprint, photograph, clay pot, or manuscript.
Let’s apply these testimonies to just two events that we’re all at least vaguely familiar with:
~ How do we know that in 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan? Because of details and facts from all three forms of testimony. Eyewitness testimony for the event is especially compelling. Recounts one 14-year-old boy: “Night came and I could hear many voices crying and groaning with pain and begging for water. Someone cried, ‘Damn it! War tortures so many people who are innocent!’ Another said, ‘I hurt! Give me water!’ This person was so burned that we couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The sky was red with flames. It was burning as if scorching heaven.”
~ How do we know what the Nazis did to Jews during World War II? Because of the horrific testimony that can’t be denied by those willing to look at the facts. Credible eyewitness testimony is critical to our understanding of what really occurred in the past.
So why do scholars have to admit that Jesus really did live and die? Because evidence, even from non-biblical sources, claims that He did. Why do Christians believe Jesus also resurrected? Again, because of compelling eyewitness testimony.
The Bible’s Book of Acts, for example, is full of eyewitness testimony. Verse after verse emphasizes that people personally saw and interacted with Christ over a 40-day period after He resurrected. We’re not talking a period of four days, or forty hours! We’re talking forty days, people! Some examples:
Acts 2:32: “God has raised Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses to the fact.”
Acts 3:15: “You killed the author of life but God raised Him to life and we are witnesses to this fact.”
Acts 4:20: “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
We can trust that the Book of Acts is legit. Or can we???
You Can’t Prove That!
You might be thinking that historical testimony isn’t necessarily reliable. Because we all know that sometimes people lie. And sometimes they intentionally skew the truth. Maybe, you’re thinking, their memory was faulty. Or maybe the disciples just wanted to make themselves seem important or grab power!
Sorry, those aren’t reasonable suggestions. Why? Because not only were the writers of the New Testament eyewitnesses — or faithfully recorded eyewitness accounts — they appealed to the knowledge of their listeners concerning the truth about Christ. They confidently assert: “You were there. You saw Him do that. You heard him say that. You were there when He did that!” The apostles throw the whole arguments of what Jesus said and did back onto the laps of their audiences by saying, “You know as much as we know of what Jesus said and did.”
Don’t miss this critical point: the apostles presented their facts in the presence of knowledgeable, hostile people who would have immediately known if they were presenting false information.
The eyewitnesses of the events in question were still alive when the traditions were being completely formed about Christ! Even better: among those eye witnesses were bitter enemies of this new religious movement who would have contested and exposed any false statements the apostles tried to concoct or spread! That, in itself, is authentication.
The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracy or to make stuff up, if their goal was to have people believe in Jesus.
Testing the Authenticity of a Manuscript
There are two standard tests exist by which all historical documents can be vetted.
The first test is called a historiography. The second is the external evidence test. There, scholars ask, “Is there external evidence totally apart from the book under investigation that confirms its inner testimony or accuracy?”
We’d start our testing by examining the paper and ink used to record the manuscript. Then we’d study its timeline — how far the manuscript is removed from the original (autographa). Next we would determine the manuscript’s approximate date. We could use clues such as ink color, letter size, punctuation, ornamentation, and even text division.
Want to know what scholars find when they examine the Bible’s timeline? That they can date the earliest version of the written New Testament to within fifty years of Christ’s death!
You might be thinking that’s a long gap, but let’s put the gap into perspective. The closest version we have of all other non-biblical historical documents is closer to hundreds of years. There is a 50-year gap between the New Testament and the autographa — but a 500-year gap with the Iliad!
We also can test a document via archaeology. Non-biblical historical literature verifies certain facts about Christ. We know that He lived during the time of Tiberius Cesar. That He lived a very virtuous life. That He performed miracles. That He was acclaimed to be the Messiah. that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the eve of the Jewish Passover. That darkness and an earthquake occurred when He died from crucifixion. That His disciples interacted with Him for 40 days after He rose. That His disciples were willing to die for their beliefs. And that Christianity spread rapidly, as far as Rome.
Another benchmark scholars consider: how many copies of the original text exist? The more copies available to review, the easier it is to reconstruct the original document. Again, let’s compare the number of manuscripts of literature of antiquity.
Many people consider the Roman historian Tacitus to be Rome’s most important historian. Yet there are only twenty manuscripts that remain of his annals. Of Pliny the Younger, only seven manuscripts survive. Of Aristotle, only 49 manuscripts. Of the Greek historian, Herodotus, only eight manuscripts survive. Of the Iliad, 643 manuscripts exist. But of just the New Testament, scholars have confirmed the existence of 24,633 manuscripts!
The evidence for New Testament writings is so much greater than the evidence for writings of other classical authors.
Notes Josh McDowell, who once thought Christianity completely bogus until extensive research convinced him otherwise, “We can hold the New Testament in our hands and confidently say, ‘Jesus really said and did what it says.'”
In our next blog post, let’s look further at the tension between our trust and the Bible. (Hint: it often starts with our inability to trust in God.)
To view videos of Josh speaking on the topic of the trustworthiness of the Bible, click here.