Why Is the Bible Reliable?

20th September 2002

0. Introduction: why the bible matters
1. Large number of manuscripts
2. Agreement with archaeology
3. Internal consistency
4. Prophecies fulfilled
5. Life-changing power

0. Introduction: why the bible matters

In this church, our approach is to base everything we believe and do on what the bible says. Our preaching every week is supposed to be based on the bible, and twice a month we do in-depth bible studies on midweek evenings. We make every effort to read, learn and understand what it says, and how it applies to our lives: here in London, now in the 21st century.

That may seem strange to someone who's not familiar with the bible: you may ask, why let your church be governed by something that was written the best part of two millennia ago?

The answer is that we respect and use the bible because we are convinced that it is the word of God: the most reliable, comprehensive and powerful guide for life ever written, embodying and illustrating the character of God the Father, of his son Jesus and of the Holy Spirit.

This week, we want to look at some of the reasons that we trust the bible. That means that this week, unlike most, we will not be quoting extensively from the bible: what is has to say about itself is interesting, but of course carries no authority with someone who's not already convinced about its reliability. So we mostly want to look at external evidence for the bible:

1. Large number of manuscripts

Based purely on the volume of evidence, we can be much more confident about the contents of the bible than about almost all the history we take for granted. It's been truly said that there is more evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar. There are many more manuscripts of the bible than of any comparably ancient writings, and they go back to much closer to the original date of writing than do the manuscripts of comparable works.

Name of Work When written Earliest copy Span Number of copies
Heredotus 488-428 BC AD 900 1300 8
Thucydides 460-400 BC AD 900 1300 8
Tacitus AD 100 AD 1100 1000 20
Caesar's Gallic War 58-50 BC AD 900 950 9-10
Livy's Roman History 59 BC-AD 17 AD 900 900 20
New Testament AD 40-100 Earliest scraps AD 130
Complete manuscript AD 350
300 5000 Greek,
10000 Latin,
9300 other

These figures, and the quality of the manuscripts, have led experts in textual criticism to conclude that the text of the bible is beyond question:

``In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings.''

— F. J. A. Hort


``The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.''

— Sir Frederic Kenyon

The most important of these manuscripts, of course, are those in the original Hebrew and Greek. You can buy original-language bibles today, but we mostly use English translations.

Can these be trusted? Yes: more than any other translation. Most prose translation (e.g. of French literature) is done by a single person whose personal biases, conscious or unconscious, may affect the shades of meaning in the translated work. By contrast, modern bibles are translated by large panels of respected scholars, each peer-reviewing each others' work. For example, the preface to the widely used New International Version (NIV) begins:

THE NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION is a completely new translation of the Holy Bible made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.
The translation of each book was assigned to a team of scholars. Next, one of the Intermediate Editorial Committees revised the original translation, with constant reference to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Their work then went to one of the General Editorial Committees, which checked it in detail and made another thorough revision. This revision in turn was carefully reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation, which made further changes and then released the final version for publication.

This kind of committee work may not be the best way to write poetry (:-), but it is certainly a fine safeguard over the integrity and accuracy of translation.

2. Agreement with archaeology

There are numerous anecdotes of archaeologists making discoveries that are consistent with the stories of the bible.

Professor Yigael Yadin, Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes how the bible helped him to interpret the remains of the lost city of Hazor.

[While excavating Hazor] we found the city gate. We were struck by the fact that it was very similar to a gate discovered many years ago in Meggido. The reason is, of course, that Solomon rebuilt three cities: Gezer, Meggido and Hazor (1 Kings 9:15). So we copied the plan of the Meggido gate just before proceeding with the excavation. We marked it on the ground and we said to our workers, `Dig here and you will find a wall. Dig here and you will find a room'.

Of course, when things turned out exactly as we'd said, they thought we were wizards.

### Story about David or someone escaping a siege in Jerusalem through a hidden passage into a pool, which was subsequently rediscovered. 2 Kings 20:20? Nehemiah 3:15? Can't find the references.

There was a whole race of people in the ancient Middle East called the Ammonites (yes, same name as the extinct cephalopods!) but for a long time, academics didn't believe there had been any such race: the only evidence for them was what's written in the bible. More recently, their cities have been found, and the bible's account vindicated.

3. Internal consistency

It's extraordinary how consistent the bible's message is, bearing in mind that it's a library of:

Yet for all that variety of authorship, historical context and literary style, the whole book carries a single, compelling, message from Genesis to Revelation: everything points to a developing understanding of the grace of God in creation, redemption and salvation.

All through the bible - including the parts written hundreds of years BC - we find references to, and analogies with, Jesus. Just one example: very early in the history of Israel, a sacrifice system was instituted in which once a year, a lamb would be sacrificed to protect the people from God's judgment. The process is described in detail:

On the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household.
The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.

— Exodus 12:3-7

What you have here is a very precise picture of the sacrifice of Jesus which is what protects us from God's holy and just judgment of our sins.

4. Prophecies fulfilled

The American theologian Wilbur Smith writes that:

The ancient world has many different devices for determining the future, known as divination, but not in the entire gamut of Greek and Latin literature, even though they used the words prophet and prophecy, can we find any real specific prophecy of a great historic event to come in the distant future, nor any prophecy of a Saviour to arrive in the human race.
Mohammedanism cannot point to any prophecies of the coming of Mohammed uttered hundreds of years before his birth. Neither can the founders of any cult in this country [the USA] rightly identify any ancient text specifically foretelling their appearance.

Yet, as Nicky Gumbol observes, ``In the case of Jesus, he fulfilled over three hundred propecies (spoken by different voices over 500 years), including twenty-nine major prophecies fulfilled on a single day - the day he died.'' Since many of these prophecies were to do with the place and manner of his death, and even the place of his birth, he could hardly have deliberately set out to fulfil them!

Just suppose the chance of each one of those prophecies being fulfilled in isolation was a very generous 50%. Then the chance of three hundred such prophecies all being fulfilled is the same as that of three hundred consecutive coin-tosses all coming up tails: one in 2037035976334486086268445688409378161051468393665936250636140449354381299763336706183397376 - that is, about one in two million million million million million million million million million million million million million million million. These are by no means exact numbers, as any mathematician who knows anything about probability theory will tell you; but it's a starting point for thinking about these issues.

There is much, much, more. For example, in Ezekiel 26:14, God prophesies to the city of Tyre, ``I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the LORD have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD.'' And so it is: the site of what was a great city in ancient times is now a bare rock, and fishermen spread their nets out on it to dry.

In the 7th chapter of Daniel, he sees a series of visions of four animals which represent the empire then ruling, and the three yet to arise in the middle east over the next few centuries: the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman empires.

There's loads of this stuff.

5. Life-changing power

The bible is a high explosive. But it works in strange ways and no living man can tell or know how that book, in its journey through the world, has startled the individual soul in ten thousand different places into a new life, a new world, a new belief, a new conception, a new faith.

— Stanley Baldwin

In the end, the strongest testimony to the truth, relevance and power of the bible is in our own lives: the way it changes our mindset, our values, our thinking; the way it jolts our thoughts out of the ruts in which they have become settled; the way it brings confidence where there is fear, joy where there is anger and hope where there is despair.

Having said that I'll not be quoting the bible to prove that the bible is reliable, I would like to finish with two short bible passages that hint at the riches that lie within, waiting to be discovered. First, the bible says of itself that:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

— 2 Timothy 3:16

And second:

The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

— Hebrews 4:12

It's true!

If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/bible2.html.

Feedback to <mike@miketaylor.org.uk> is welcome!