I know the Bible is God’s Word. But what about the reliability of the Bible as ancient literature? How can we be sure we have what God originally gave us?
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). Jesus’ words will go on forever. He promised to give us that Word: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). We have the Holy Spirit’s reminder in the Bible! We can be sure because God promised we would have his Word.
When compared to other ancient documents, the Bible shows itself as the most reliable. Wherever the Bible can be tested in these areas, it has passed with flying colors. Even when some think that they have found an inconsistency, further evidence verifies the biblical record.
In addition, dozens of outside historical sources speak about Jesus from within 150 years of his life. This list of sources includes non-Christian historians like the Roman Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus. They wrote within a generation of Jesus, and neither of them had a pro-Christian agenda. They simply recorded the historical facts about Jesus. Their writings confirm the facts we find in the Bible.
Some say that we cannot be sure of what the Bible says because we only have copies of copies. However, this same objection could be made of any ancient manuscript. The scribes were incredibly careful when copying the biblical manuscripts.
The scribes were known as the sopherim, which means “counters.” Why? Because they counted the number of letters in their copy of a scroll, and if it did not add up to the correct number, they burned the scroll. Why did they burn it? Because they wanted to preserve the message just as it was written.
What about mistakes in copying that made it through the counting? In the great majority of the cases, the original reading can easily be identified. For example, if I am dictating a letter to 50 people who are copying it down and 49 copyists record one word while 1 has a different word, which word did I likely say? The word that 49 people copied down. The one variant doesn’t nullify the other 49 copies. So, none of the variant readings affect a single teaching of Scripture.
One compelling illustration of this reliability is the finding of the Isaiah Scroll—one of the Dead Sea Scrolls—at Qumran around 1947. Previous to that find, the most recent complete Isaiah scroll dated from about 900 a.d. That’s 1,600 years after the original writing of Isaiah! The Qumran Isaiah scroll was one thousand years older than that scroll. And do you know what was amazing? Nothing was substantially different between the two! The Qumran scroll verified the text of Isaiah.
Number of manuscripts
Finally, the reason there are so many variant readings is because there are so many more manuscripts than any other ancient document. Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars have about 10 Latin copies. Plato’s Tetralogies have less than 10 Greek copies. No one doubts whether Plato or Julius Caesar existed or what they wrote. The New Testament has over 20,000 manuscript copies. More copies mean more certainty!
Have a question? Submit it here.
Author: David Scharf
Volume 108, Number 7
Issue: July 2021