The Bible is of the utmost importance to Christians. This is our foundation for life and godliness; the source for our beliefs about God, ourselves, and our world; and the place we go to hear the voice of God. Whether your Bible is dusty or well-worn, the Bible is essential to your life as a Christian.
But can we trust it? Most of us would say yes. Yet most Christians would be hard pressed to explain why they believe the Bible is trustworthy. When skeptics tell us that the Bible is unreliable, that it has been copied and recopied so many times that it can’t be trusted, that the Bible has been changed by human beings, that it’s old fashioned and irrelevant for today, and many other such accusations, we brush them aside. But deep down, many of us feel uneasy.
So can you trust your Bible? Absolutely you can. I’m going to take six posts to explain why. Here’s my gameplan:
Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?
Part 2: Doesn’t the Bible Contain Errors?
Part 3: How Do We Know the Bible Is Scripture?
Part 4: Who Put the Bible Together?
Part 5: How Do We Know We Got the Right Books?
Part 6: What Gives the Bible Its Authority?
So here we go.
Part 1: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Time?
Two accusations against the Bible go hand in hand. One is that the Bible contains errors (we will deal with this tomorrow), and the other is that the Bible has been changed over time. Christians have historically believed that the Bible is inerrant (i.e., it contains no errors). So if the Bible does indeed contain errors—whether historical, scientific, self-contradictory, etc.—and if the Bible has indeed been changed, then we have a problem.
First of all, it is important to clarify that when we say the Bible is inerrant, we mean that it contains no errors in its original manuscripts. We don’t have any of the original manuscripts for any of the books of the Bible (this seems like a good thing considering how easy it would be for these manuscripts to become idols). We have many (I mean that: many!) manuscripts that are very old, but none that are original. So if we find a minor mistake here and there (and we do find minor inconsistencies), we don’t need to be unsettled—we’re only claiming inerrancy for the original documents.
Now, I just mentioned two scary things: (1) we don’t have any of the original manuscripts, and (2) our copies contain minor errors. Don’t be afraid. In reality, the diversity of the manuscripts we have actually strengthens the reliability of Scripture. Early on, the books of the New Testament were copied, translated, and spread across the known world. So if someone was going to tamper with the words of Scripture, they had a narrow time frame in which to do it. The reality is that we have many manuscripts in a handful of languages. So there are “families” of Greek manuscripts that are very similar to one another. There are also “families” of Coptic manuscripts that are very similar to one another, etc.
Let’s put this into perspective. We have somewhere north of 20,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in museums and collections around the world. That’s a lot. And if that doesn’t sound impressive to you, consider that many of other works we have from the ancient world are considered reliable even though they are based on no more than a few manuscripts.
And here’s the impressive thing. These diverse manuscripts agree with each other more than 99% of the time. So the Bible spread around the world, was translated into a handful of languages, and was copied like crazy. And all of these copies agree with one another almost completely. That less than 1% disagreement is not scary in number or in content. It is significant that we know exactly where these discrepancies are located. You can see them as you’re reading your Bible. Most English translations mark these with footnotes that indicate “Some manuscripts read “_____.” Pay attention to these while you read, and you’ll find that they are rare and that none of them are very significant.
We’ll talk about the Old Testament a bit in Part 4, but it’s worth pointing out the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls were discovered in 1948 in caves near the Dead Sea. They contained a lot of things, but significantly, archaeologists found several copies of the Old Testament. Prior to their discovery, the oldest manuscript of the Old Testament that we had was dated around 1000 AD. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, were dated around 200 BC. This means that they were written, sealed up, and hiding in the darkness long before Jesus and his followers were born, just waiting to be discovered in the 20th century. In many cases, these Old Testament scrolls match our Bibles very closely. In some cases, the scrolls differ. What this means (and this was not news to scholars) is that a handful of textual traditions were in circulation even at that early date. In any case, this finding confirms that our Old Testament has not been reworked wholesale since the time of Christ. (For more on the reliability of the Old Testament, stick around for Part 4).
So we can be confident that the Bible we have matches the Bible that the inspired authors wrote. But does that matter? If the original manuscripts contain errors, then we can’t trust our Bibles. I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.