How can we trust the Bible?
The bible was written by more than 40 authors, in 3 different languages over a period of 1,600 years. Why believe what it says?
The LIFE course largely focuses on the accounts of Jesus’ life found in the New Testament (NT) so I am going to consider the Old Testament (OT) only briefly.
When was the bible written?
The OT was probably written between around 1400 BC and 150 BC. Jesus was born in about 3 BC and crucified in AD 30. The evidence points to the NT being written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses of the events described in the gospels:
* Paul’s letters were written in the late 40s-early 50s AD. He quotes early church creeds that refer to Jesus being “in very nature God” (Philippians 2:6), the image of God, creator and means of salvation (Colossians 1), and dying for our sins and rising again (1 Corinthians 15).
* The Gospels were written after Paul’s letters. Mark is generally dated around 70 AD, Matthew and Luke in the 80s and John in the 90s. However, some argue that Luke must have been written by 62 AD as its second part, Acts, ends with Paul awaiting trial in around 62-3 AD, and therefore Mark must have been written no later than the late 50s-60 AD.
* The writings of the early church fathers in around 100 AD quote extensively from the entire NT.
Who wrote the gospels?
* The early church unanimously attributed the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke to Matthew (a.k.a. Levi, one of Jesus’ disciples), John Mark (a companion of Peter) and Luke (a companion of Paul).
* The authorship of John by Jesus’ disciple, John, also appears to have been unanimously recognised by the early church. The only doubt is based on a reference in a letter dated 125 AD to John the apostle and John the elder – it is not clear whether these are two people or just two roles.
This means that the events recorded in the gospels are based on direct or indirect eyewitness accounts.
Is the text we have the same as the original?
Historians measure the integrity of a text by the number of manuscripts or fragments of such existing, and the extent to which their content has been accurately transmitted across time.
* OT – The Dead Sea scrolls date from around 100 B.C. and include roughly 240 separate manuscripts or portions of the OT, including a complete copy of Isaiah and fragments of every book in the OT (except Esther). 95% of the text in these manuscripts/ fragments is identical to the Hebrew bible today and there are only minor variations in the other 5%. This means that we have an accurate copy of the bible that Jesus read and quoted.
* NT – There are circa 13,000 ancient and medieval manuscripts that contain copies of portions of the NT, the earliest of these is only a few decades older than the original manuscript. All scholars agree that there is no doubt that the NT text we have has been accurately preserved since the date of writing.
No other ancient document comes close to having this amount of manuscript evidence for its accurate transmission. The closest is Homer's Iliad, of which there exist 634 manuscript copies, dating from around 500 years of the original date of writing.
Do the gospels accurately represent the facts?
Archaeological excavation has frequently confirmed and never conclusively contradicted the gospel accounts. In particular, Luke has been shown to be a detailed and precise historian, accurately referring to 32 countries, 54 cities, 9 islands and numerous historical figures.
Other ancient historians refer to events and people featured in the gospel accounts. They include:
* Josephus, a Jewish historian born in AD 37, who refers to Jesus’ crucifixion and many gospel characters e.g. Herod, Pilate, Felix, Festus and James.
* Tacitus, who wrote a history of Rome in around AD 110. He refers to the persecution of Christians, who got their name from “Christus”, a man executed by Pontius Pilate.
* Pliny the younger, governor of Bithynia AD 111-113, who wrote to the Emperor to ask his advice on how to deal with Christians who worshipped Christ as God.
The truth of the gospel accounts was not opposed at the date of writing. They circulated in the areas referred to in the accounts but there is no evidence that opponents of Christianity attacked them as false.
What about the inconsistencies between the gospel accounts?
Some argue that the gospels are untrustworthy due to the various differences between them.
* The accounts are written by independent authors with different sources.They do contain some slight discrepancies over detail, which have been carefully studied, leading to the resolution of many areas of apparent contradiction.
* There are some differences between the first three gospels often referred to as the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John’s gospel. However, the synoptics contain parallels for the major themes found in John e.g. it’s claimed that, in contrast to John, the synoptics contain little evidence of Jesus’ divinity. However, within the synoptics Jesus refers to himself as Yahweh, the OT name for God (Matthew 14:27) and claims to be able to forgive sins, leading the teachers of the law to accuse him of blasphemy (Matthew 8, Mark 2, Luke 5). He also frequently described himself as the Son of Man, a title given to a divine figure in Daniel 7, and at his transfiguration (Mark 9, Matthew 16, Luke 9) he appears as a glorious heavenly being.
Who decided what to include in the NT?
The early church grew fast and spread across Europe, Asia and Africa. The books of the NT were copied and spread rapidly. They were treated by the early church as authoritative and scriptural from the 1st century AD. The inclusion of the majority of the books contained within the NT was undisputed and the few that were originally disputed by some were discussed openly until consensus was reached by the church at large. The content of the NT was not dictated by a church edict but was widely established. No church council met until 393 AD at which the established canonicity of the 27 books of the NT was recorded.
How does the bible read?
Ultimately, the text is compelling. We are used to reading carefully worded political propaganda but the bible portrays ordinary people grappling with extraordinary events. We read about onlookers who were frightened by Jesus' miracles and ask him to leave town, disciples who were slow-witted and fearful, and an early church susceptible to false teaching. The suffering to be endured by Christians is emphasised – many of the disciples went on to die for their faith. The bible does not present a flawless advertisement for the Christian faith but powerfully describes God’s engagement with real people working it out in their lives.