The Reliability of and A Confidence in the Bible

 In RZIM Africa

Guinness World Records puts the total number of Bibles sold at five billion, making it “the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book.”[1] Its content has fascinated children and adults alike, saturating our social imagery, metaphors, literature, and art. For many, it tells the transformative truth about God and what has been achieved through Jesus Christ.

Still, we are left with the question: Is it reliable? I remember my high school friends saying with a certain gleeful sarcasm: The Bible is the greatest work of fiction ever written. This recalls Richard Dawkins’ description of God as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” and the Bible which describes him as “chaotically cobbled-together.”[2]

When it comes to examining the truth of any set of significant statements, we must consider: (1) the coherence of the overall argument, i.e. Is it free from irremediable internal discrepancies?; (2) the correspondence of these claims with other truths about reality, i.e. Does it fit with what we know about the world; and (3) the pragmatic value of the claims, i.e. Can they be lived out in the real world?

In the light of the above, I will identify two sources of evidence for investigation that speak to the reliability of the Bible: (1) internal evidence and (2) external evidence.

 

The Internal Evidence

The New Testament (NT) was written within roughly sixty-five years of Jesus’ death.[3] Importantly, these documents are coherent texts in history, written by authors in a specific context, who had particular approaches, aims and methods. Differences that emerge, say in the Gospel accounts, are what we might expect if we respect the individuality of the agents God inspired to record his story. For example, Matthew is probably Jewish and, thus, crafts his Gospel story for a Jewish audience; Luke is a gentile, who draws on eyewitness material to emphasise God’s global mission. In these and other differences, a point of confidence that the authors are seeking to write history and not ‘mythology’ is the specific literary form chosen: the ancient genre of bios or biography.[4] Richard Bauckham notes that best practice in this genre involved: “Specified dependence on eyewitness testimony recorded by the historian within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.”[5] This is a high standard indeed! Further, despite differences in approach, form and emphasis, the NT message is uniform.

Additionally, the initial letters from the first century have been preserved through rigorous discipline in copying and transmission. Clay Jones has noted the overwhelming confidence the manuscript tradition provides in the way of textual reliability: “The Bible outstrips every other ancient manuscript in sheer number and earliness to the autograph [the date each book was originally penned].”[6] We can have confidence that what we are reading reflects the initial texts written by the authors in the first century.[7]

 

The External Evidence

 The internal evidence of genre and coherence of content provides us with confidence, as well as the transmission and manuscript tradition. Beyond the internal markers of reliability exist a number of external factors. First, the Gospels’ recollection of architecture, dates and places is remarkably accurate. For example, in John 5:2, a pool called Bethesda is spoken of in detail. Its existence was doubted until its discovery in 2004, thus vindicating John as recording history.[8] Second, the frequency of names mentioned in the Gospel correlates with names used in first-century Jewish Palestine. This would not be the case if names were (later) inventions added to the Gospel traditions.[9] Third, extra-biblical literary sources corroborate ancient events and people mentioned in the Bible. For example, the Jewish writer Josephus (37-100 CE) mentions the Herods, Pilate, Felix, Festus, as well as the famine in the days of Claudius (see Acts 11:28), that Jesus had a brother called James and, significantly, the crucifixion of Jesus.[10] It is multiply attested that the biblical material corresponds to the historical reality.

 

Reading the Bible Confidently

Therefore, when reading the Bible, there is good reason to believe one is reading a collection of historically reliable texts. It is important to let this feed into one’s devotional life, allowing the text’s historical significance to amplify God’s word and the confidence we have to apply it to our daily lives and situations.

 

[1] http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction. Date Accessed: 07 April 2019.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), pp. 31, 237.

[3] See F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, 6th ed. (Nottingham: IVP, 2000), pp. 16-19; John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life – The Historical Evidence (Lion Hudson: Oxford, 2008), pp. 23-33, esp. 32.

[4] For more on this, see Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004); Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (New York: OUP, 2017).

[5] Richard Bauckham, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grove Series B48, Cambridge, 2008), p. 8; cf. Bauckham’s extended academic work: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

[6] Clay Jones, “The Bibliographical Test Updated”: https://www.equip.org/articles/the-bibliographical-test-updated/. Accessed: 16 April 2019.

[7] See Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), esp. ch(s) 5-6.

[8] John Dickson, Life of Jesus: Who He is and Why He Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), pp. 33-35.

[9] Bauckham, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2008), pp. 9-10.

[10] See Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible? Answers to 10 Tough Questions (IVP: Nottingham, 2005), pp. 56-9.

Written by Michael Day | 2019

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