The Historical Reliability of the Bible

As Westernized Christians living in the 21st-Century, we are products of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.  The auto-pilot of our brains, the default OS (operating system) in our brains are the filters of logic, reason, and the scientific method.  Without our even being aware of it, our brains are constantly evaluating all the input they receive (sights, sounds, smells; ideas, concepts, assertions) through these filters.

Even as people of faith, our default approach to life has been profoundly influenced by logic, reason, and science.  And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.  It’s not necessarily a good thing either – but it is worth recognizing that we do bring a bias into all of our cognitive processes: a bias that asks of every thought, every observation, every suggestion, every input into our brains: “Is it logical?  Does it make sense?  Can it be proven scientifically?”  This bias is sometimes spoken, but is most often unspoken, even sub-conscious.

As people of faith, we can sometimes feel like we have to check this bias at the door.  As if faith and reason were incompatible, mutually-exclusive worldviews.  They are not.  Today, I would like to appeal directly to this bias of logic, reason, and science, particularly as it pertains to the historical reliability of the Bible.

Did you know that there are certain factors, certain standards that historians and archaeologists use to measure the historical reliability of an ancient document?  Things like verifying an authenticated copy of an original document (called a “manuscript”), how many manuscripts there are, how closely they date to the original composition, and how similar the various manuscripts are to each other (their internal consistency with each other).

For instance, the fifth most reliable document from ancient times is Caesar’s Gallic Wars.  These documents were originally composed between the years of 44-10 BC.  The earliest manuscripts (authenticated copies) of the original composition that we have are from about 1000 AD.  That means the closest copies of the original we have are about 1000 years removed from the original writings.  And we have about 250 such manuscripts/copies.

Now, these writings are not in dispute.  Their historical accuracy is accepted within the scientific and anthropological communities.  Their accounts of the Gallic Wars are accepted as factual, and they are printed in textbooks as historically accurate.  Remember, that’s information we have based on 251 copies which date from more than 1000 years from the original composition.  Are you with me?

The fourth most historically reliable documents we have from ancient times are Demosthenes’ Speeches, which date from 300 BC.  The earliest known manuscripts are from 1100 AD – that’s 1400 years after the original composition!  And we have about 340 such copies.

Comparison of Ancient Historical Documents-Top 5

In third place is Aristotle’s writings, from the 4th-Century BC.  We have about 1000 manuscripts of these writings dating from 850 AD, which is about 1200 years from the originals.

The second-most historically reliable documents from ancient times come from Homer’s Iliad, which were composed in 800 BC, and whose earliest manuscripts date from just 400 years later.  This puts it well in front of the others in the Top 5, as does its number of manuscripts, which is 1757!

All of these – the writings of Demosthenes, Aristotle, Homer (and more below) – they are all accepted as historically accurate and factual by secular culture.  No question, no doubt, total acceptance.

But none of these compare – none come anywhere close to – the objective, scientific, historical verifiability of the writings of the Biblical New Testament.  The Books of the New Testament (NT) were all composed between the years of 49-95 AD, and the earliest manuscripts we have of the original NT compositions date from 30 years – 30 years(!) after the original writings!  That means we still have copies of the original NT writings that date from within the lifetimes of the original authors themselves!  No other documents from ancient times come anywhere close to that!

The other factor is the sheer number of authenticated manuscripts we have, which has eclipsed 25,000 in the last decade, thanks to ongoing archaeological findings.  25,000!  Which date from within 30 years of the original compositions.  This is many times more than the second-most historically reliable documents we have, and exponentially more than the others in the Top 10!

Sheri Bell, in her article on “Testing the Historical Reliability of the New Testament” explains it this way: “That equates to one mile of New Testament manuscripts (and 2.5 miles for the entire Bible), compared with an average four feet of manuscript by the average classical writer.”

Comparison of Ancient Historical Documents

The Bible writings, and specifically those of the New Testament – all about Jesus’ life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, and the works, travels, and teachings of his immediate followers – are by far, by many times over, the most historically reliable documents humanity has from ancient times.  When you read the Bible, you are reading a religious work for sure – but you are also reading an objectively, scientifically-authenticated work from and about history.

The writings of the New Testament are not merely “stories” – they are accounts – eyewitness testimonies of actual events that really happened – historically verified and cross-authenticated by science, archaeology, and anthropology.

“If history tells us that Jesus existed (which it does), if the New Testament manuscripts that tell us about Him are of outstanding quality and integrity (which they are), and if the people who knew Him best were convinced that He both claimed to be and was the Son of God (which they were), then we have to take seriously the plausibility that the Biblical account of Jesus is the true one.”  –Dr. Carey Vinzant

Sources:

Sheri Bell, Josh McDowell Ministry, “Testing the Historical Reliability of the New Testament.” Posted on January 10, 2018. Accessed online at https://www.josh.org/historical-reliability-new-testament/.

Teri Dugan, TruthFaithAndReason.com, “Case-Making 101: How does the Bible compare to other ancient documents?”  Posted on December 4, 2016.  Accessed online at https://truthfaithandreason.com/case-making-101-how-does-the-bible-compare-to-other-ancient-documents/.

Evidences for Christianity, “4.1 Manuscript Evidence for the New Testament”. Accessed online at http://www.evidencesforchristianity.org/manuscript-evidence.html.

Clay Jones, “The Bibliographical Test Updated” Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 03 (2012). Accessed online at https://www.equip.org/articles/the-bibliographical-test-updated/.

Sir Frederick Kenyon, Bible and Archaeology (Harper & Bros, 1940).

Frederic G. Kenyon, Our Bible And The Ancient Manuscripts: Being A History Of The Text And Its Translations (Kessinger, 2007).

Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (Oxford UP, 2005).

J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C. Cook, 2013).

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