Can the Bible be trusted?
Today we want to continue talking about the Bible and answering the question, “Can the Bible be trusted as a historical document?” The column will not be about trying to convince you to have faith in the book or believe the claims of the book necessarily, but to lay a foundation of why the Bible is a historically viable document.
First, a little bit about the Bible. The word Bible comes from the Greek word for book, so the title, “Holy Bible” actually means Holy Book. The Bible was written in three languages (Hebrew, Greek, and a little of Aramaic) over a period of 1,500 years by more than forty authors. Now, these authors weren’t on some grand Bible-writing council. They were a mixture of people from all kinds of walks of life, age brackets, and even continents. There are books written by kings, doctors, and fishermen.
The Bible itself is actually 66 separate books. About a three quarters of these books make up what we call the Old Testament. This section of the Bible records God’s creation of the world, his choosing of Abraham to be blessing to the world, and traces his family’s history up until about 450 B.C.. The New Testament begins with the four gospels - recording Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension - and then continues to describe the early Church.
What makes the Bible unique is that it is a library of books that are one Book. We would expect a book of books to have all sorts of problems, but the Bible is surprisingly unified and continuous in its scope. The New Testament, for example, has hundreds of explicit quotations of the Old Testament and thousands of references to it.
The chapters and verses in the Bibles that we have today were not there originally, but were added in the 1200s to give people a tool to find specific passages when studying the Scriptures. This is important to know because they were not applied with any logical or consistent method, and although helpful, they are not authoritative or part of the original work. Why does this matter? The Bible was never meant or intended to be read in bits and pieces and stripping these verses from their book leads to confusion, misunderstanding, and even heresy. Rightly reading the Scriptures requires reading the individual bible books within their context.
As I said, as a book written over the course of 1,500 years by various authors, we would expect massive problems with the copies circulating, but this is what makes the Bible unique as a historical document. If you have a modern copy of the Bible, your version is virtually indistinguishable from what the ancients before us wrote (just in English).
People often try to argue that the Bible cannot be trusted because we don’t have the original copies, but at the same time that never seems to bother them when they look at documents by Plato, Sophocles, Homer, or Caesar Augustus. In each of those cases, we have fewer than 10 ancient copies of their books, and the earliest version is at least 1,000 years after the author wrote it. Think about that - we will teach the writings of Plato in school, but the earliest copy of his writings is fragmented and from 1,000 after when it was written.
Until the middle of the 20th century, our oldest copies of the Old Testament were from about 900 ad call the Masoretic Texts. When the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, suddenly archaeologists had copies of the Old Testament that were more than a thousand years older than previous versions. When compared with the Masoretic text, a thousand years removed, the main differences were related to spelling changes (e.g. American spelling of ‘color’ versus British ‘colour’).
When comparing the New Testament to the ancient writings of people like Homer, we have 14,000 + manuscripts versus singles digit copies of other ancient works. The earliest fragment is from less than 100 years after the original writing was penned.
So, as you hold the Bible in your hand, realize that - historically - you are holding an important document. The Bible has scholarly evidence to back up its validity as an ancient document that has not “been changed hundreds of times through the ages” as many people might ignorantly claim.
The Bible has historical veracity. Whether you believe in the Bible’s claims or agree with the supernatural accounts within its pages is an entirely different question and consideration. That said, as far as a historical document is concerned, you cannot simply toss the Bible aside as a foolish, corrupted document littered with errors, contradictions and mistakes. The Bible is a marvel of historical preservation. So yes, even your modern translation available at a bookstore is remarkably trustworthy.
My advice? Start reading it.