God said it. I believe it. That settles it.
This once popular bumper-sticker slogan sums up the argument many Christians muster when it comes to the reliability of Scripture: The Bible is God’s Word. The Bible says it is God’s Word. I don’t need another Word.
It is true, and important, to assert that the Bible itself holds to its own abiding reliability and authority, due to its divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21). But we live in a world of skepticism, and even antagonism, toward the Scriptures. In this arena of ideas, Christians need to be able to articulate the reasons why, with good reason, we hold to Scripture’s reliability and accuracy.
The insufficiency of the arguments against reliability
A good conversation partner to illustrate the insufficiency of the arguments against reliability is Bart Ehrman, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, a bestselling author and a frequent presence on national television shows. A former evangelical, Ehrman has become the most well-known critic of the veracity of Scripture.
His arguments include, among others, the number of textual errors and supposed contradictions in the New Testament, and the late dating of the New Testament. One will note, however, that many of Ehrman’s arguments, as well as those by other modern critics, are merely recycled from liberal academicians in ages past. And essentially all his arguments have been adequately countered by conservative scholars.
For many resources on the Scriptures and answers to Ehrman’s arguments, see the excellent website, www.ehrmanproject.org. But what can be said briefly on these arguments? Take one example: Ehrman claims that there are more textual variants (or differences) in the various manuscripts of the Greek New Testament than total words in the New Testament — some 400,000 variants, compared to 135,000 words. That’s almost three variants per word!
Yet, the majority of these variants among the (staggering) 5,500-plus available Greek manuscripts today are small and inconsequential — spelling errors or variations, nonsense readings, word-order differences, etc. Comparatively few change the meaning of the text, and none confuse any significant theological teaching. In fact, the agreement between the manuscripts is quite significant — perhaps as much as 95-99 percent.
Mark Roberts puts this issue in perspective in his book, “Can We Trust the Gospels?” He writes, “This book has almost 50,000 words. Suppose I asked two people to make copies of this book by hand. Suppose, further, that they made one mistake every 1,000 words (99.9 percent accuracy). When they finished, each of their manuscripts would have 50 mistakes, for a total of 100. This doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But suppose I asked 2,000 people to make copies of my book. And suppose they also made a mistake every 1,000 words. When they finished, the total of mistakes in their manuscripts would be 100,000. This sounds like a lot of variants — “more than the words in my book,” Bart Ehrman would say. But, in fact, the large number of variants is a simple product of the large number of manuscripts.”
In fact, most disagreements against the reliability of Scripture seem to emerge from a predisposition against the Scriptures. In other words, one’s disagreement is based on one’s presuppositions that the Bible is not inspired or authoritative.
The compelling evidence in favor of their reliability
Instead, when honestly evaluated, the evidence for reliability and accuracy is quite compelling.
The New Testament documents especially represent the most well-attested, well-preserved documents of the ancient world. The textual witnesses to the New Testament number in the thousands, compared to usually handfuls of witnesses for most other major written works of antiquity.
In addition, the manuscripts we possess are also closer in time to the original manuscripts than any other ancient document. For instance, most of the earliest manuscripts of ancient documents, like Josephus’ “Jewish Wars” and the writings of Tacitus, are eight to nine centuries after the originals. On the contrary, the earliest New Testament manuscript (a fragment of the Gospel of John, called The John Ryland’s Papyrus) dates to 125 AD, only 25 to 30 years after the writing of the New Testament (50-90 AD). And Greek scholar Daniel Wallace claims he has found a Greek manuscript that may date to even earlier than 125.
Thus, while we have no original manuscripts of the New (or Old) Testament, we have manuscripts that would have been in existence when the originals were probably still in use. Even the Old Testament, though not as widely attested, still betrays significant agreement among the witnesses and a definite care in the transmission of the text.
Such care and diligence was part of their culture. The Hebrew scribes (literally, “counters”) were known for their meticulous copying efforts and reverence for the received text. This fact was reconfirmed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of these documents predated existing Hebrew manuscripts by more than 1,000 years. When compared, scholars discovered a remarkable resemblance, even after so many centuries.
Other evidence for the reliability of Scripture includes its fulfilled prophecy and its unique coherency and consistency. No ancient document matches the Bible in these unique qualities, despite its being written by some 40-50 authors over some 1,500 years.
Finally, many conservative scholars rightly point to the Bible’s incredible historical veracity, as substantiated by archaeology. While we should not force archaeology to “prove” the Bible, archaeology has substantiated many of the Scriptures’ historical claims.
Indeed, the evidence backs the claim of the Baptist Faith and Message that the Bible is “a perfect treasure of divine instruction,” having “God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”
Some resources on this issue include: Darrell Bock, “Can I Trust the Bible?”; John Stott, “You Can Trust the Bible”; F.F. Bruce, “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?”; Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels”; and Paul Wegner, “The Journey from Texts to Translations.”
— Bryan Cribb is associate professor of Christian studies and chair of undergraduate Christian studies in the College of Christian Studies at Anderson University (www.auministry.com).