Is the Bible Credible?
One of the biggest questions that skeptics, seekers and believers alike all ask is: Is the Bible credible? Or how can we be certain of its credibility?
In this article we are going to look into a number of facts which show that the Bible is not only credible but one of the most credible ancient documents in existence today. However, it’s important to at least state this once - there is certainly an element of faith involved in trusting the Bible to be God’s inerrant (read “without error”) word. The faith of Christianity should not be understated, but it is also important to understand why we believe what we believe. Having facts that can back up our beliefs help us to stand up under fire. Or, maybe you yourself are searching for answers. Hopefully this article will give you some insight to consider.
The Bible is not the only ancient or historical document in existence today. There are tons of ancient texts that are often cited and studied all throughout academia, religion, philosophy and history. Many of these historical documents are treated as credible and we’ll use them as a basis to compare the Bible.
Just a few of the many ancient writings and texts that are studied and referenced today throughout society are:
- The writings of Gaius Julius Caesar
- The writings of Aristotle, such as “Nicomachean Ethics”, “De Anima” his writings on poetics, physics, and metaphysics.
- The writings of Sophocles, a playwright.
- The Iliad by Homer
- “The Republic” by Plato, a philosopher
- “The Histories” by Herodotus, a detailed account of the Greco-Persian Wars.
When examining any ancient text, historians and archaeologists will often consider a handful of fundamental questions, including:
- Who wrote it?
- When was it written?
- What events does it speak of?
- How soon after these events was it written?
- How credible are the copies we have? (we’ll get into this one)
- Are there any external sources which confirm or dispute this writing?
We will explore who wrote the various books of the Bible in more detail in another article. The next two questions are also important. But, for brevity, we’ll be focusing primarily on the last three questions.
How soon after these events was it written?
When an ancient document is written about historical events, it’s important to ask how soon after the events was this written? Why is that important? Two big reasons are this: First, if it was written too long after the events that took place, we will have greater reason to question if the writer accurately remembers the events, or was even present for the events. Second, if when a document was written, many people who were alive at the time of the event are still alive, there is greater opportunity for scrutiny. If you wrote a book about World War 2 in 2022, there are still some people alive today who could dispute the points of your book if it were bogus. But a book about World War 1 would be harder to find and confirm inaccuracies, as anyone alive today is likely relying on stories told to them over a couple of generations. However, were you to publish a book about the recent pandemic, anyone who can read today was alive at that time and could easily dispute any inaccuracies.
There are 66 books in the Bible. For the sake of time, we’ll look primarily at the first four books of the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Why? Because these are the four books which record a historical account of the life of Jesus - the pivotal element of Christian belief.
There is no question about whether or not Jesus was a real person. All scholars of any repute, whether secular, religious or Christian, will agree Jesus was a real man. But the question lies in whether the miraculous events of the New Testament are true and can be trusted. Most scholars will agree that Jesus would have been born somewhere between 6 BC and 4 BC. It is believed that he was crucified around the age of 33. This would place his final three years of life and ministry roughly around 26 to 29 AD.
The Gospel books of the New Testament do not clearly state what year they were written. However, there are a number of clues that historians and scholars have used to pinpoint these dates. The book of Matthew (or the Gospel according to Matthew) is believed to have been written between 50 AD to 70 AD. Or, 21 to 41 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written sometime between 55 AD and 70 AD.
Most scholars are confident that the Gospel of Luke was written before 63 AD.
Many scholars believe that the Gospel of John is the latest, written between 80 AD to 90 AD. Although, some believe it also was written before 70 AD, because it does not mention the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
In the Gospels (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21), Jesus’ disciples point Jesus’ attention to the temple and the great buildings around him. Jesus replied “I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished, not one stone will be left on top of another.” - This was a bold statement to be made. A prophetic one - which came true in 70 AD when the Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple under the order of Emperor Nero. Any book written after 70 AD about the events of Jesus’ life would surely want to include the evidence of Jesus’ prophetic words coming to be so. For that reason, many believe that all four Gospels were written before 70 AD.
With an upper ceiling of 41 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, there were likely plenty of people at that time who were alive when the events they speak of actually occurred (or didn’t occur), they would’ve disputed the writings, there would be written record of their disputes, and the people who propagated these writings would be less inclined to share and make copies of these writings.
It should also be noted that the individuals propagating these writings stood to gain nothing from doing so. They even risked losing their lives for doing so. This is evidence that the writers and those spreading these writings were completely convinced it was true, otherwise, why risk their lives with nothing to gain?
How credible are the copies we have?
The original manuscript of the New Testament, or any of the above mentioned ancient texts for that matter, do not exist today. Throughout history, before the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, scribes, historians, and monks would make hand-written copies of documents they believed to be important in order to spread them farther and maintain their historical record.
With that in mind, the two questions to consider are:
- What is the oldest manuscript we have available today?
- How many ancient manuscripts exist today?
The oldest manuscript matters for similar reasons to why we ask how soon after the events was the original written? The smaller the gap, the more we can trust the credibility and that it has not been significantly altered.
The number of ancient manuscripts or copies available today is also important because it allows us to compare them with each other to look for discrepancies. We can assume nearly all scribes, historians and monks took their jobs seriously to ensure the preservation of history. If ten copies exist, nine of them are identical and one is substantially different, we can likely assume that the one is not genuine and should not be trusted, but we have a 90% confidence level in the accuracy of the other 9 because they all match. As the number of matching copies increases, this confidence level also increases.
For Caesar’s writings, we have about nine or ten good manuscripts in existence today. The oldest of these dates back to over 900 years after the original was written. With nine or ten good copies, we can have a pretty good level of confidence as to what the uniform message across those copies is. However, it certainly could have been altered during the 900 years between the original text and the oldest copy we have. That’s a lot of time and a lot of generations to pass by.
For the writings of Aristotle, we have 49 copies in existence today. The oldest copy dates back to around AD 1100, which is nearly 1400 years after the original was written. With 49 copies, we can definitely have a higher level of confidence in the accuracy of these copies, if they are mostly identical. However, the 1400 year gap between the original and the oldest copy we have today is still a long period of time, more so than Caesar’s writings.
Ignoring the New Testament for a moment, of all other ancient texts, the one that we have the most certainty about is Homer’s writings (the Iliad). Some sources say that we have just over 640 copies of the Iliad, other sources say we have less than 2,000 copies. The less than 2,000 copies of the Iliad have a 95% accuracy rate (meaning only 5% differ from the majority) and the oldest copy dates to around 400 BC, roughly 500 years after the original was written. 500 years is still a substantial gap, but gives us a bit more confidence compared to all other ancient texts. Anywhere from 600 to 2,000 copies with 95% accuracy among them also gives us a much higher level of confidence with regard to the originals.
Then, there’s the New Testament. The New Testament blows every ancient text out of the water with regard to historical trustworthiness and accuracy. We have nearly 5,600 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek language today. With over 19,000 ancient copies in Latin, Aramiac, Syriac and Coptic languages. The oldest of the Greek copies dates back to roughly AD 130, which is less than 100 years after the events of Jesus and even less time after the original was written. It is the smallest gap out of all of the ancient texts we have and have the most ancient manuscripts or fragments out of all of the ancients texts we have.
Among the 5,600+ ancient copies of the New Testament that we have, there is a 99.5% accuracy rate among them, meaning that only 0.5% of the manuscripts we have contain discrepancies from the other copies. This gives us great certainty.
Based on the facts, the New Testament is by far the most reliable and most credible ancient text that we know of today. You could certainly decide that 5,600 ancient copies, with the oldest being less than 100 years after the events they speak of, is not good enough for you to believe them to be true - but if that’s the case, the consistent and logical thing to do would be to also declare that the writings of Homer, Caesar, Aristotle, Sophocles, Livy, Plato, Pliny, and many others also to be unreliable.
If we trust the reliability of any other ancient text or writing we know of today, then we must accept the New Testament to be historically valid and accurate. Otherwise, we must discredit every other text we know of.