Is the Bible Reliable?

The following is excerpted from an article BJ Rudge wrote while working on his doctorate. This powerful article will encourage you with the uniqueness and reliability of Scripture. BJ's complete article on this topic along with several of his other articles on evidences for the Christian faith will eventually be compiled into a challenging new book.

Is there credible evidence to demonstrate that the Bible is a reliable source of divine revelation? Does the Bible speak accurately on all subject matters or is it only authoritative in regard to spiritual issues? On one side of this debate are those who affirm that the Bible is full of errors, contradictions, and mythological elements, and if any reliability should be given to the Bible it should only include religious content. Another side to this debate asserts that the Bible is the very infallible Word of God, and as Paul claimed in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the Bible is reliable on all subject matters.

By appealing to archaeology, history, science, and fulfilled prophecy, we will see that the Bible is a reliable source of divine revelation on all subject matters contained within it. We will present a cumulative case approach by bringing together proofs from a variety of areas. These proofs will act as pieces of a puzzle, whereby when they are all put together, the puzzle will be complete.

Unique Structure of the Bible

The first piece of the puzzle is the internal structure of the Bible. As we examine the biblical texts, we quickly realize that throughout the Bible (Genesis to Revelation), there is a unified harmonious theme. When we take into account the various authors, cultural backgrounds, and span of time, we begin to get a glimpse of the unique structure of the Bible.

First, the Bible was written over a 1,500 year span (from about 1450 B.C. to about A.D. 90). This time span consisted of diverse history with events ranging from times of conquest and war to captivity and peace. Second, more than 40 authors wrote the Bible:

Two of the writers (David and Solomon) were kings; two were priests (Jeremiah and Ezekiel); Luke was a physician; two were fishermen (Peter and John); two were shepherds (Moses and Amos); Paul was a Pharisee and theologian; Daniel was a statesman; Matthew, a tax collector; Joshua, a soldier; Ezra, a scribe; and Nehemiah, a butler. Backgrounds and occupations of the other writers are largely unknown. Some were highly educated, but most were of ordinary circumstances.1

Third, these authors wrote in different settings. For example, Paul wrote while in prison, Moses wrote in a wilderness, and John wrote the Book of Revelation while exiled on the isle of Patmos. Not only did these diverse authors write in different settings, but their writings were also written on three different continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe). Fourth, the Bible was written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).

Fifth, the authors wrote in a variety of styles. For example, there is poetry, law, prophecy, narratives, wisdom literature, gospels, acts, epistles, and revelation. Amidst this diversity, one would expect discrepancies. Certainly these various authors, from different cultural settings, are going to be in disharmony over a variety of issues.

However, when we come to the Bible, we have exactly the opposite of what we would expect. Amidst the diversity we have unity. This unity is reflected in the overall theme of the Bible. The Old Testament begins with the reality of human sin and man's need for redemption, which, through the act of God's love, is fulfilled in the New Testament by the coming of Jesus Christ.2 It is important to keep in mind that this unity goes beyond the main theme of the Bible to the very doctrines that it rests upon. In a pamphlet entitled, Bible Unity –– An Argument for Inspiration, Wayne Jackson emphasizes this point:

It truly is an astounding phenomenon that whereas biblical writers did not hesitate to criticize one another for personal flaws of conduct (see Galatians 2:11ff.), and while one author might concede that another writer's production was difficult to understand (II Peter 3:16), never did the inspired writers critique, or attempt to refute, the doctrinal argumentation of their inspired companions. Contrast this with the conduct of theologians in this age –– indeed, of any age!3

Jackson then goes on in this pamphlet to cite examples of doctrinal harmony. He appeals to the fact that the Bible affirms that there is but one God manifested as three distinct persons, the universe has a beginning and was created by God, man is more than physical matter and was created in the image of God, and that blood is necessary for the atonement of sin.

The Bible stands out as being unique in that amidst the diversity there is a unified theme and purpose.

Bibliographical Test

"How can you trust the Bible when it was written two thousand years ago?" "How do you know that the Bible has not been changed since it has been copied and recopied throughout history?" "How do you know that the Bible is not full of myths and fabrications when it was written many years after the actual events?" It seems that anytime I talk to others about the Christian faith I end up hearing one of these questions.

On a recent trip I was able to speak with an airline pilot about the evidence for the resurrection. Although he claimed to be a Christian, he argued that we really could not be sure of the total accuracy of the recorded events in the Gospels since they were written years after the events actually occurred. At the heart of his claim was the notion that the Bible is not a historically reliable document.

Based upon the assumptions of this pilot and others, the task before us is to decide whether or not the Bible is in fact a historically reliable document. The way that this can be done is by appealing to three tests that have been used to determine the reliability of a document. These tests, which were espoused by military historian C. Sanders, are the bibliographical, internal, and external tests.4

The bibliographical test determines whether or not the document has gotten to us successfully through years of copying and recopying, and thereby accurately represents what was first written. Since we do not possess the original manuscripts of ancient documents, the bibliographical test helps us to determine the reliability of the copies that we have by taking into account the number of manuscripts available and the time span between the writing of the original document and the copies that we possess.

Second is the internal test, which determines whether the document itself claimed to have been written by eyewitnesses or by associates of eyewitnesses. Third is the external test. This test determines whether there is data outside the document that will confirm the claims that the document makes.

New Testament

Let us consider the bibliographical test. No other document of the ancient world comes even close to the reliable manuscript tradition for the New Testament. In regard to the number of manuscripts that we have of the New Testament, Josh McDowell asserts the following: "There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence."5

Let's compare the number of manuscripts of the New Testament to other ancient documents. Take for instance the writings of the ancient historian Herodotus. Although his historical writings are considered to be reliable sources, we have only eight manuscript copies of his works. Homer's Iliad, of which we possess 643 manuscript copies, ranks next to the New Testament in the number of total manuscripts.

When comparing the time frame from the original manuscript to the copies that we possess, once again the New Testament stands above all other ancient documents in regard to the reliability of its manuscript tradition. For example, historians believe that we can be confident that Caesar's Gallic Wars were actual historical events. Historians assert this claim, even though the time frame from the original manuscripts of Caesar's Gallic Wars (between 58 and 50 B.C.) to the copies that we possess is 900 years later than Caesar. Comparing this to the New Testament, the time frame from the original manuscripts of the Gospels (A.D. 40-100), to the copies that we possess, is less than 200 years.6 Once again Homer's Iliad is the closest to the New Testament in that the time between the original manuscript (900 B.C), to the copies that we possess (400 B.C), is around 500 years. When one compares the manuscript tradition of the New Testament to other ancient documents, the New Testament is by far the most reliable ancient document in relation to the bibliographical evidence.

Old Testament

In contrast to the New Testament, the Old Testament does not possess as many manuscripts. However, when we consider the reverence and diligence that the Jews had in transcribing the Jewish Scriptures, the lack of manuscript quantity actually stands as proof for the reliability of the Old Testament. The following are some of the disciplines that Jewish scribes adhered to when transcribing the Hebrew Scriptures:

According to the Talmud, there were specifications not only for the kind of skins to be used and the size of the columns, but there was even a religious ritual necessary for the scribe to perform before writing the name of God. Rules governed the kind of ink used, dictated the spacing of the words, and prohibited writing anything from memory. The lines, and even the letters, were counted methodically. If a manuscript was found to contain even one mistake, it was discarded and destroyed. This scribal formalism was responsible, at least in part, for the extreme care exercised in copying the Scriptures. It was also the reason there were only a few manuscripts (as the rules demanded the destruction of defective copies).7

After transcribing a manuscript, the intricacy of these rules and others gave Jewish scribes the confidence to grant equal authority to the new copy with that of the older copy.

Since the Old Testament was completed around 400 B.C., a question arose as to whether or not we could be confident of trusting a manuscript that was transcribed over 1,000 years from the completion of the Old Testament. This time gap seemed to create a problem for the reliability of the Old Testament. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls brought an end to this shadow of doubt concerning the Old Testament manuscripts.

The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrated the bibliographical reliability of the Old Testament in three ways. First, the Dead Sea Scrolls have greatly increased the number of Old Testament manuscripts. Thousands of fragments of both biblical and nonbiblical manuscripts have been found in the Dead Sea region. By taking into account all of the scrolls, we are able to put together almost the entire text of the Old Testament. Second, the Dead Sea Scrolls shortened the time frame dramatically between the writing of the original document and the copies that we possess. Third, it has been shown that our present Old Testament text is practically identical to the fragmentary manuscripts that were found in the Dead Sea region.

By taking into account the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish transcribers' reverence for Scripture and accuracy on even the smallest detail, one is left with a strong case for the historical reliability of the Old Testament manuscripts.

When we subject the Bible to the internal, external, and bibliographical tests, we are left with the most reliable document in the ancient world. The manuscript tradition, eyewitness testimony, and external verification by early church fathers, sets forth a powerful case for the reliability of the biblical text.

Archaeology and the Bible

The Bible has been criticized by many as having errors and contradictions in regard to its documentation about historical people, places, and events. For example, the Old Testament records that there were a group of people known as the Hittites who lived during the time of Abraham (Genesis 23:10; 26:34). However, scholars of higher criticism argued that the Hittites never existed since the only record of them was in the Old Testament. The New Testament also came under scrutiny as critics argued that a historical person known as Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:2; Luke 3:1) never existed. These are just two examples of how the Bible has been criticized as an unreliable source.

For many years, the issues above (and many others) were left unresolved as a cloud of suspicion surrounded the biblical text. However, time and time again archaeology has shown that the Bible is accurate concerning what it says about historical people, places, and events. In our examples above, archaeology verified the Bible in each case.

Were the Hittites an actual group of people who lived during the time of Abraham? With the discovery of clay tablets found in Assyria and Egypt, we now know that the answer to this question is yes.8 What about Pontius Pilate? Was he really a historical person? Two Italian archaeologists answered this question when they unearthed an inscription in Latin at the port city of Caesarea which stated, "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberium to the Caesareans."9

The above is just a glimpse of how archaeology has verified the Bible. Of course, archaeology does not demonstrate that the Bible is the Word of God. Rather, what it does show is that the authors of the Bible accurately documented details related to history and geography. William F. Albright, considered to be one of the greatest archaeologists, makes the following comment about archeological discoveries and the veracity of the Bible:

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.10

Fulfilled Prophecies

The reliability of the Bible is also verified by fulfilled prophecies. "Unlike any other book, the Bible offers a multitude of specific predictions –– some hundreds of years in advance –– that have been literally fulfilled or else point to a definite future time when they will come true."11

Some of the most astonishing prophecies in the Bible are concerning the Messiah. Many of these are documented in Bill Rudge's book, Who Is This Jesus?. There are also prophecies that reveal the succession of great empires (Daniel 2), the miraculous history and restoration of Israel (Isaiah 11:11-12), and the judgment of certain nations (Edom – Jeremiah 49:16-17; Tyre – Ezekiel 26:3-14; and Philistia – Zephaniah 2:5). For instance, the prophet Isaiah predicted that a Persian king named Cyrus would issue a decree for the Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt (44:28). Around 700 B.C., 150 years before Cyrus was even born, Isaiah mentioned the very name of the king who would have Jerusalem rebuilt. Also, consider that the Temple and Jerusalem were not even destroyed during the time that Isaiah prophesied that the Temple would be rebuilt. It would not be until 586 B.C. that King Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Jerusalem and the Temple. Added to this, Cyrus did not even become a king until shortly after Persia defeated the Babylonians around 539 B.C. This prophecy was accurately fulfilled when Cyrus (538 B.C.) issued his decree for the Israelites to return to Israel from exile and begin the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

In another example, the prophet Jeremiah predicted the eventual doom of Edom:

As for the terror of you, the arrogance of your heart has deceived you, O you who live in the clefts of the rock, who occupy the height of the hill. Though you make your nest as high as an eagle's, I will bring you down from there, declares the Lord. Edom will become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss at all its wounds (49:16-17).

Since I have been to Petra (capital city of the ancient nation of Edom), I have personally witnessed the fulfillment of this prophecy. In this prophecy, Jeremiah specifically claims that Edom will be desolate. He does not say that it will be destroyed or restored as other prophecies about ancient cities. Rather, this ancient city carved out of rock would become a place of desolation. Predicting this event far in advance, the desolation of Edom was eventually fulfilled when Petra was conquered by the Muslims in 636 A.D. Now, besides the visit of tourists, Petra is a deserted city, which as I can personally attest to, arouses the astonishment of those who pass by it.

As we examine the Bible, we discover that no other book in the world contains so many specific prophecies that were foretold years in advance and that have been accurately fulfilled. The fact of fulfilled prophecy stands as another piece of our puzzle in showing the divine reliability of the Bible.

Scientific Foreknowledge

"One of the most arresting evidences of the Bible's inspiration (reliability) is the unique scientific foreknowledge it contains. From anthropology to zoology, the Bible presents accurate scientific information, and provides rules, regulations, or prohibitions based on that information."12 The Bible is full of numerous examples of pre-science information. "By prescience we mean the occurrence, in Scripture, of accurate statements reflecting an in-depth knowledge of scientific concepts far before mankind had laid the technological base for such things to be known."13 Let us look at just a few examples.

As we read the Old Testament, we find a number of health practices. One had to do with touching the carcass of a dead person or animal: 

The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean (Numbers 19:11-12b).

It is interesting to note that during the time of Moses, the exact opposite of what was stated in Numbers was being practiced. For instance, in Egypt (the most advanced civilization of its day), where Moses grew up, the Egyptians practiced mummification. In this process the Egyptians would touch the dead corpse with their bare hands. Then the germs that killed the corpse would contaminate their hands and be transmitted to those that they came in contact with. It should be "no wonder [that] the Egyptians were a people of epidemics."14

This practice of touching dead bodies and not washing the hands was carried on well into the 1800's.15 However, the situation has changed as this biblical health principle is applied today in modern medicine. All medical personnel are now required to routinely wash their hands, not only when they come in contact with dead bodies, but even when examining living patients. The reason they go through daily rituals of hand washing is to kill germs and prevent the spread of infections. Modern science has attested to the reliability of the Bible in that the washing of hands is vital in preventing the spread of disease.

Another example of pre-science in the Bible was the disease control principle of sanitation. In regard to dealing with human waste, the Bible asserts the following:

You shall also have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement (Deuteronomy 23:12-13).

This simple act of dealing with human waste has proven to control disease and save lives. In the 1800's England saw the devastating result of not having a sanitation system that properly disposed of human waste. During this time, human waste would empty into dead end streets. As a result, this lack of sanitation brought about a cholera epidemic which swept across London, killing thousands of people.

It was not until proper sanitation was established that the epidemic ceased. This sanitation system, established by Edwin Chadwick, implemented the principle found in Deuteronomy of removing human waste from where people lived. Those who listened to Chadwick and followed this principle saw death rates cut in half in their towns.

By following what was written in Deuteronomy about sanitation, many lives were saved. Even today, we see the devastating effects of poor sanitation in many countries. This method of sanitation in the Bible has proven to be an accurate way of preventing diseases. "Short of modern sewage treatment, this (procedure in Deuteronomy) may be the best method for disposing of human waste. The biblical method accomplished the most important aspect of public health –– separating human waste from human beings."16

These (and other) pre-science health principles found in the Bible were given for the Hebrews to follow in order to avoid diseases that were rampant in other cultures at this time (Exodus 15:26). Amazingly, these health principles have been verified by modern science as being effective in helping man avoid a number of diseases.

There was a time when people believed the earth was flat. Yet, the Bible written thousands of years earlier stated that the earth was round: "It is He (God) who sits above the circle of the earth..." (Isaiah 40:22a). Also, ancient cultures could not conceive of a world suspended in space. The Greeks believed Atlas carried the earth on his shoulder. Some Indian cultures envisioned the earth on the back of three elephants which stood on a giant tortoise.

But, 2,500 years ago the Bible declared that the earth was suspended in space: "He (God) stretches out the north over empty space and hangs the earth on nothing" (Job 26:7). Although the Bible is not a textbook on science, the evidence demonstrates that it is scientifically accurate.

Testimony of Jesus Christ

The final piece of our puzzle which we will deal with at this time is the testimony of Jesus Christ. As we read the Gospels we clearly find that Jesus had a high respect for the Old Testament as being an infallible source of authority. First, this is demonstrated during His temptation by Satan. In each temptation Jesus replied to Satan by quoting the Old Testament (Matthew 4:1-11). Second, Jesus "always treats the historical narratives as factually truthful accounts."17 For instance, Jesus made reference to the following as being factual: Jonah (Matthew 12:40-41); Noah and the flood (Matthew 24:37-39); Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15); and Abraham (John 8:56). Jesus accepted as fact historical events and people in the Old Testament, even those recorded events which have been the target of higher critics.

Perhaps we see the clearest evidence of Jesus' view of the Bible in His following comment, "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). These words, from the One who has overwhelming evidence to verify His resurrection from the dead and proof that He is the Messiah, carry great weight.

Conclusion

"In the early days of the church, Celsus, Porphyry, and Lucian tried to destroy it by arguments. Later the emperors Diocletian and Julian tried to destroy it by force. At several points it was actually a capital offense to possess a copy of Holy Writ."18

Now, in our own time, the Bible faces the challenge of higher criticism. However, despite countless attempts to destroy and undermine it, the Bible continues to persevere and change thousands of lives on a daily basis –– as it has mine. As David proclaimed in one of his psalms:

O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word. I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, for You Yourself taught me. How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! From Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way (Psalm 119:97- 104).

The Bible has a unified theme amongst a diversity of authors. The Bible is superior to any other ancient document in regard to the bibliographical, internal, and external evidence. The Bible has been confirmed by archaeology as being a reliable source in its documentation of historical people, places,

Notes

1. Henry M. Morris and Henry M. Morris III, Evidences for the Christian Faith – Many Infallible Proofs (Green Forest, AR.: Master Books, 2000), 164.

2. See James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varity Press, 1986), 54.

3. Wayne Jackson, Bible Unity-An Argument for Inspiration (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 1998).

4. See C. Sanders, Introduction to Research in English Literary History (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1952), 143-ff.

5. Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense, compiled by Bill Wilson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), 43.

6. One example of a manuscript of the New Testament that we possess is the Chester Beatty Papyri, which has been dated around 200 A.D. Although this papyrus does not contain all of the New Testament, it does contain major portions of it.

7. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 552.

8. See Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 96-98.

9. McDowell, 111-112.

10. William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, revised ed. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Pelican Books, 1960), 127-128.

11. Geisler, 609.

12. Bert Thompson, "Scientific Foreknowledge & Biblical Accuracy," in Reason and Revelation. December 1996, 16[12]: 95-96. (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).

13. William J. Cairney, "Biomedical Prescience 1", in Evidence for Faith, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Dallas: Probe Books, 1991), 128.

14. S.I. McMillen and David E. Stern, None of These Diseases, millennium three ed. (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2000), 21.

15. See None of These Diseases, chapter 3 about the life of Dr. Semmelweis.

16. S.I. McMillen and David E. Stern, 35.

17. Clark H. Pinnock, "The Inspiration of Scripture and the Authority of Jesus Christ," in God's Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Newburgh, IN.: Trinity Press, 1974), 202.

18. Boice, 64.