The Bible's Uniqueness Pt 2 (Historical Reliability and Inerrancy)
September 2, 2019
The Bible Is Unique in Its Historical Reliability
Assuming that we believe in God and that he has chosen to reveal himself through the Bible, how do we know that the Bible is accurate? We no longer have the original manuscript; therefore, how do we know the copies we have today are accurate? After all, we have all seen the telephone game: If we were in a classroom of people and one whispered a simple phrase into another’s ear, he did the same to the next person, and so on, by the last person, the phrase would be totally different. Isn’t that what happened with all the copies of the Bible over 100’s (1000’s) of years, and therefore, the Bible we have today is incomparable to the original?
This argument that has often been used to discredit the Bible. Obviously, there are many weaknesses with this comparison. (1) In the telephone game, people are only allowed to share a story once, without correcting it. The whole point of the game is to get something crazy at the end. Even with transferring stories by word of mouth, they can be transferred with great accuracy when care is given in the transmission, as with oral tradition. (2) With that said, what makes this comparison more unfair is the fact that it compares transferring the spoken word to the written word. The transferring of written words is tremendously more accurate than transferring spoken words.
With that said, the historical reliability of the Bible is again one of the more unique things about the Bible. An article in the North American Review said this in comparing the reliability of Scripture to Shakespeare’s writings:
It seems strange that the text of Shakespeare, which has been in existence less than 2 hundred and eighty years, should be far more uncertain and corrupt than that of the New Testament, now over 18 centuries old, during nearly fifteen of which it existed only in manuscript… With perhaps a dozen or twenty exceptions, the text of every verse in the New Testament may be said to be so far settled by general consent of scholars, that any dispute as to its readings must relate rather to the interpretation of the words than to any doubts respecting the words themselves. But in every one of Shakespeare’s thirty seven plays there are probably a hundred readings still in dispute, a large portion of which materially affects the meaning of the passages in which they occur.[i]
The historical reliability of Scripture is in fact a mystery that attests to the sovereignty and power of God to preserve his words. To scholars it is in fact mind-boggling. The Bible is more historically reliable than any other ancient manuscript.
In considering the reliability of Scripture, we must understand that the oldest complete Hebrew Old Testaments date to around 1000 AD.[ii] This is very late, since the last Old Testament book, Malachi, was written around 433-424 BC.[iii] With such a great distance between the original and the copies, it would seem that critics had a great argument against the Bible’s reliability. How can we trust copies written 1400 years after the original? However, in 1947, an Arabian shepherd boy walked into a cave in the Middle East and stumbled upon hundreds of manuscripts, which are the oldest Hebrew OT fragments historians have ever seen. These date back to around 250 BC to 68 AD and include not only portions of OT chapters but whole books.[iv] These manuscripts are called the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What makes this story even more amazing is the fact that those early copies are 95% to 99% the same as later copies of the OT. The 1-5% variation consist of spelling errors such as a “t” that wasn’t crossed or an “i” that wasn’t dotted and small scribal additions. It is virtually amazing and proves the accuracy of the Bible.
When considering the entire Bible and its historical reliability, as mentioned, no ancient text compares. Historians use the manuscript evidence to evaluate the reliability of ancient literature in comparison to the missing original. Two standards used are:
the time interval between the original and the earliest copy
the number of copies available
For instance, of all ancient books (other than the Bible), the most historically reliable according to textual criticism is the Iliad. It was written around 750 BC and the earliest copies are from 415 B.C. This makes a time gap of approximately 335 years, and the number of copies is over 1900. Consider some other ancient books:
Herodotus—Histories, written around 425 BC, earliest copies from 150-50 BC, 275-375-year time gap, with 106 copies
Caesar—Gallic Wars, written around 50 BC, earliest copies from 900 AD, 950-year time gap, with around 261 copies
Pliny—Natural History, written around 77 AD, earliest copies from 500 AD, 423-year time gap, with around 200 copies
Tacitus—Annals, written around 100 AD, earliest copies from 850 AD, 750-year time gap, with 36 copies[v]
In considering the New Testament alone, there are books with a time gap of 50 – 150 years. Within 225 years, there are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts. Within 400 years, there are over 19,000 manuscripts in Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic.[vi] There are over 24,000 original autographs of the NT—all within 95%-99% accuracy of each other. The OT has over 42,00 manuscripts.[vii] The Bible, as a whole, has more manuscript evidence than any ten pieces of ancient literature combined. Moreover, even if we did not have any ancient New Testament manuscripts, it was so often quoted by ancient writers such as Plato, Socrates, Josephus, that by simply combining the exerts the entire NT can be pieced together.[viii]
Because the Bible is so accurate in comparison to ancient literature, if one doubts the historical reliability of Scripture, they must also doubt that of the classics and therefore almost all we know about ancient history.[ix] The quotes of these two authors are helpful in considering this reality: Bible scholar Daniel Wallace said, “If we have doubts about what the autographic NT said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author.”[x] Likewise, Glenny Edwards said, “No one questions the authenticity of the historical books of antiquity because we do not possess the original copies. Yet we have far fewer manuscripts of these works than we possess of the NT.”[xi]
Verification of Internal Testimony
Another test of historical reliability is the verification of internal testimony by outside sources.[xii] As with the manuscript evidence test, the Bible passes this one in stellar fashion as well. Not all historical details in Scripture can be verified, but its history is verifiable where it can be checked, including when Scripture discusses miracles. For example, ancient Babylonian records describe a world-wide flood in accordance with Genesis 6-8, and a confusion of language, which fits the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11).[xiii] Archaeological findings from the site where Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to have lied display evidence of a fiery and violent destruction in accordance with Genesis 19. “Samples from the site show that an extremely hot, explosive event leveled” the cities. Many archaeologists believe it was hit by a meteor.[xiv] In the New Testament, cities, political officials, and events have been repeatedly affirmed by historical findings. Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, “has been described as a first-rate historian for his attention to detail and accurate reporting.”[xv] Sir William Ramsay said this:
Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians… Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.[xvi]
When considering the miracles of Christ, they have strong attestation outside the Bible as well. In the Babylonian Talmud (AD 500), it says that Christ “practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”[xvii] Josephus (AD 30-100), an ancient Jewish historian, said Christ did “startling deeds” and gained a following.[xviii] Altogether, historical findings continue to increasingly prove the reliability of Scripture.
The reliability of Scripture simply confirms what Scripture teaches about itself—that it true (Ps 119:160), perfect (Ps 19:7), imperishable and enduring (1 Pet 1:23). God has truly persevered his Word both from corruption and error. It is unique in comparison to all of literature.
In the reading, what stood out most to you and why?
Have you ever heard Scripture’s trustworthiness criticized by using the telephone game illustration? Why is the telephone game a bad comparison to Scripture’s transmission and therefore trustworthiness?
What two standards are used in evaluating an ancient manuscript’s accuracy with its original? How does the Bible measure up in comparison to other ancient manuscripts?
Why is it so important for outside sources to verify the internal testimony of an ancient document? Share which example stood out most to you of how outside sources verify a biblical story.
What other questions or applications did you have from the reading?
The Bible Is Unique in Its Inerrancy
What exactly does it mean to say, “the Bible is inerrant”? It simply means the Bible is without error in its original autographs and therefore the copies can be trusted. There are two primary views in Christianity about inerrancy. One view is called limited inerrancy: This view limits the scope of inerrancy to such things as matters of faith and practice or to the message of salvation. For example, one might say: “The Bible is infallible, as I define that term, but not inerrant. That is, there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice.”[xix] Christians from liberal backgrounds might take this view.
The other dominant view is absolute inerrancy: It would teach that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”[xx] In general, a simple definition might be “that the Bible tells the truth.”[xxi] Christians from conservative backgrounds take this view. When there is an apparent error in the Bible, they would say it comes from a default in the manuscript, translation, or our understanding. Absolute inerrancy is more consistent with what the Bible teaches about itself—that the Bible is perfect and without fault—which we will soon consider.
Why is believing in absolute inerrancy so important? Simply, if the Bible is in error at even just one point, it can be in error in any place. And then, how can we trust anything the Bible says? As soon as the foundational belief of Scripture’s inerrancy is lost, every other doctrine comes under refute. First one doubts the accuracy of miraculous stories like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, or the flood story, and then, they doubt doctrines with greater consequences like the creation story, Christ’s resurrection, his second coming, hell, and salvation itself. It is a very slippery slope.
Why should we believe in the Bible’s inerrancy? Primarily, for four reasons:
1. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is God’s character.
Titus 1:1-2 says: “to further the faith of God’s chosen ones and the knowledge of the truth that is in keeping with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began.” Paul encourages Titus with the fact that eternal life is promised by God who cannot lie. Essentially, that’s why we can trust all of Scripture. Scripture is God’s Word, and God cannot tell a lie. Numbers 23:19 says this: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it happen?”
In fact, Christ called himself “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus is the truth because there is nothing false in him. Everything he says and does is true because he is God and that is his character.
2. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is what the Bible teaches about itself—that every word is true, not just the ideas of Scripture.
In Matthew 4:4, Christ said this, as he quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus said that man lives on “every word” that comes from the mouth of God, not SOME words or SOME events. Likewise, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In agreement, Psalms says:
The law of the Lord is perfect and preserves one’s life.
All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.
Psalm 119:160 (NIV)
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
Psalm 12:6 (ESV)
Scripture teaches that every part of it is true, not just some parts or the main ideas of Scripture.
3. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is the perseverance of Scripture.
Jesus said this, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place” (Matt 5:18). As we’ve considered, God has in fact preserved his Word, as seen its historical reliability. It is more reliable than any ten combined ancient manuscripts.
4. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is that Scripture uses Scripture in such a way that supports its inerrancy.
In the Bible, at times an entire argument rests on a single word (e.g., John 10:34–35 and "God" in Psalm 82:6), the tense of a verb (e.g., the present tense in Matt 22:32), and the difference between a singular and a plural noun (e.g., "descendant" in Gal 3:16). Let’s consider an example: In Matthew 22:30–32, the entire argument rests on a single word. The Sadducees were the liberal believers in Christ’s day—they did not believe in miracles, the resurrection, or even an afterlife. So one day, they tested Christ on his belief in the resurrection. They concocted a scenario where a woman’s husband died and then she married his brother. The brother died and she married another brother. He died and she married another and so on until the seventh died. Then she eventually died. Then the Sadducees asked Christ, “At the resurrection whose wife will she be?” “Basically, they argued that the idea of resurrection posed insuperable difficulties, hence it was not reasonable, therefore it was not true.”[xxii] Consider Christ’s response:
Jesus answered them, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the scriptures or the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Now as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living!”
Here, Christ’s argument rests on the tense of the word “am.” Essentially, Christ says, “Didn’t you notice that ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ was written in the present tense?” Christ was saying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all still alive, and therefore, would one-day be resurrected. This confronted the Sadducee’s lack of belief in the afterlife and the resurrection. Every word has been chosen by God even down to the tense.
We also see this in how Paul handled Scripture. In Galatians 3:16, he said:
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ.
When looking at the promise of Abraham and ultimately salvation, Paul argues that the promise was not to Israel specifically, but that it was to Christ and, therefore, everybody in Christ (cf. Gal 3:29). He says in Genesis the promise was to Abraham’s “descendant,” singular, and not “descendants,” plural. Here the argument rests on the word “descendant” being singular.
The Bible is inspired and inerrant even down to the tense and plurality of the words. Every word is inspired by God and not just the ideas. This gives credence to studying and meditating on each word of the Bible since we believe God chose them for a purpose. This is one of the reasons many Bible students study the original languages of Scripture. They do this because they are convinced of the validity of each word. Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
Questions about Inerrancy?
1. Some might ask, “How can the Bible be without error if mere humans wrote it? I know God made it but so did humans, and humans are fallible.”
This is true, and because of this reality, it must be clearly recognized as a miracle. People are sinful and prone to error; however, God is perfect and cannot err. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors in such a way that he kept them from error in the writing of Scripture.
2. Some might ask, “What about apparent errors in Scripture such as scientific, historical or grammatical errors?” Here are some general principles to consider:
The Bible can be inerrant and still speak in ordinary, everyday language.
For example, today people commonly use jargon like the sun rose (sunrise) or the sun went down (sunset). However, the sun technically never moves—the earth does. Though these are not scientifically, accurate statements, they are culturally, acceptable statements which are truthful. Scripture uses similar statements. In Joshua 10:13-14, Scripture describes how the sun and moon stood still, as God enabled Israel to defeat an army. What really happened is God miraculously made the earth stand still. However, the narrator describes the event by how it appeared visually, just as people commonly do today. Though not given in scientific language, it is still truthful language. Likewise, the Bible also uses approximations. In today’s language, if one says his house is 5 miles away, but it is really 4.5 miles away, it is not considered deceptive. It is an approximation. If the person lived 100 miles away, then the statement would be an exaggeration and considered a lie. Sometimes, approximations are used on the news when accounting for death and injury tolls when a major accident happens. Likewise, when we share with others about these tragedies, we often use approximations. Our intent is to share the truth and the seriousness of a situation but not necessarily the precise numbers. The authors of Scripture commonly did that in their writings as well when counting people or deaths. For them, the focus was truthfulness and not necessarily exact precision, which is how we commonly speak as well.
·The Bible can be inerrant and still include loose or free quotations.
In the ancient Greek, they didn’t have quotation marks. When quoting someone, it just had to be an accurate representation of the content of what one said.[xxiii] It didn’t have to be word for word. Therefore, authors in Scripture often did that in their writings. They would often paraphrase an Old Testament text. This is how we commonly transfer what someone else said as well. Our intent is to relay the truth, and not necessarily, the exacts words. This is common in the Bible as well.
The Bible can be inerrant and still have unusual grammar.
Some biblical authors were well-educated and wrote elegantly and accurately according to the standards of that day. Others were less educated which also showed up in their writings. As far as inerrancy is concerned, the focus is truthfulness. A farmer might not be the best writer in a town, but he could still be the most trustworthy person in the town. According to Wayne Grudem, in the original languages, Scripture at times contains “the rough-hewn language of ordinary people”—this might include having a plural verb when it should be a singular or a different spelling of a word than usual.[xxiv] Again, this does not affect Scripture’s inerrancy because the focus of inerrancy is truthfulness.
The Bible can be inerrant and still contradict accepted historical or scientific beliefs.
It should be remembered that current scientific and historical beliefs often contradict previous ones. Science and history are still evolving, as more findings come in, but Scripture is not. It is complete. Therefore, we can be assured that when all the findings are in, Scripture will be proved correct. For this reason, Christians should not doubt Scripture’s accuracy because of scientific or historical theories, as compelling as they may be. God is the creator of the world, and he established how the world runs (science); he also knows the beginning from the end and is in control of both (history). Therefore, we can trust what the Bible says in the areas of science and history.
3. Then someone might ask, “If, we do not have the original manuscripts, isn’t the argument of inerrancy in the original manuscripts a moot argument?”
When we consider how the apostles and the early church handled the copies of Scripture, their belief in the reliability and authority of the copies is clear. Therefore, we should trust them as well. Consider the following:
In 2 Timothy 3:16, when Paul spoke about Scripture being God-inspired and useful for training in righteousness, he was using copies, not the originals. The early church was using copies just as we are now. The original texts were copied and passed from church to church. Yet, they still believed they were inspired and authoritative.
We also see how the early church believed the copies were authoritative in the Old Testament quotations used in the New Testament. The majority of the OT quotes in the NT were from the Septuagint, which was the Greek version of the Old Testament.[xxv] Even though the original verses were in Hebrew, the writers of the NT still considered the Greek translation authoritative and without error. We even see Jesus quote the Septuagint in his rendering of Isaiah 29:13 in Mark 7:6–7:
He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’
Again, this is a quote from a translated copy, but it was still inspired by God. The apostles primarily used Greek copies in the quotes placed in the inspired New Testament. If Jesus and the apostles trusted the copies, then, as a general rule, we can trust them as well.
Here is a contemporary argument. If I apply for a job, the company will most likely take a photocopy of my driver’s license and social security card to keep for their records. They know the copy is not perfect, it may have a smudge here or there, but, in general, the copy is considered accurate and acceptable. This is how the early church handled the copies of Scripture and so do we. God has preserved his words, and it is still authoritative. As mentioned, when we compare the thousands of copies of Scripture, they are 95 to 99% the same.[xxvi] The errors are typically small copyist errors. When comparing a manuscript error with the content of thousands of other manuscripts, what was originally there is clear. This is what we call textual criticism.
If there are errors in the Bible, they are errors in our understanding of the text, the copy of the manuscript used, or the translation. But the Bible itself cannot have errors because God is its author, and he cannot err. He has promised to preserve his word. If we cannot trust the Bible on one thing, then the whole Bible comes into question.
What does all this mean for us?
1. Scripture’s inerrancy means we can trust what the Bible says.
We should not doubt spectacular stories in Scripture, such as the universal flood, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, the virgin birth, Christ’s sinless life, the resurrection, or prophecies about the end times. We can believe the Bible’s teaching about history, science, morality, wisdom, Christ, salvation, and the end times. The Scripture holds the very words of God, and therefore, it is not only authoritative and powerful, it is also trustworthy.
2. Scripture’s inerrancy gives us insight on how to study God’s Word.
As mentioned, it is good to at times meditate on single words—noting their tenses, meaning, position in a sentence, etc.—because each word was chosen by God. Every part of Scripture (including each word) is God-inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so God’s people can be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).
With the Sadducees, Jesus said, “Have you not read?” Sure, they had read Scripture, but they didn’t study and meditate on each word—and therefore missed the powerful truth of the resurrection, which would have changed their lives (cf. Matt 22:30–32). Many times, we miss a great deal in our study of the Bible as well. Therefore, we should study Scripture both telescopically (seeking the big picture) and microscopically (trying to understand details). Both approaches will greatly enrich our time in God’s Word.
In the reading, what stood out most to you and why?
What is the difference between limited inerrancy and absolute inerrancy?
What are some reasons to believe in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture?
How should the absolute inerrancy of Scripture affect a person?
What other questions or applications did you have from the reading?
[i] McDowell, Josh, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Here’s Life Publisher, San Bernardino, Ca, 1979.
[ii] Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/what-is-the-oldest-hebrew-bible/
[iii] MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Handbook. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/what-is-the-oldest-hebrew-bible/
[v] Number of ancient copies and some other classic book details from McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict
[vi] McDowell, Josh. The Unshakeable Truth (p. 98). Harvest House Publishers.
[vii] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 53). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[viii] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 63). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[ix] Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-reliable.html
[x] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 55). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xi] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 55). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xii] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 76). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xiii] Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-reliable.html
[xiv] Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2018/12/04/new-science-suggests-biblical-city-of-sodom-was-smote-by-an-exploding-meteor/#666ea5465c67
[xv] Accessed 9/2/19 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-reliable.html
[xvi] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict (p. 87). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xvii] The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. Accessed 9/2/19, as originally cited on http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/talmud.html
[xviii] Josephus, Antiquities, 18.3. As quoted from Powell, Mark. Jesus as a Figure in History, Westminster John Knox Press, London, 1998 (pg 33).
[xix] Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 92). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
[xx] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 90). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
[xxi] Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 93). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
[xxii] MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1287.
[xxiii] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 92). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
[xxiv] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 92). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
[xxv] Gleason Archer and Gregory C. Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2005), Kindle edition.
[xxvi] Josh Mcdowell. New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), Kindle edition.