As noted in previous posts, everyone’s storehouse of knowledge relies on a combination of (a) personal observation and experience, (b) inductive reasoning, and (c) the testimony of others. In our search for the knowledge of God, we have considered these first two and introduced the third. Whether we realize it or not, the vast majority of our knowledge depends on this third source. Otherwise, history books, libraries, universities, and Google would be superfluous! As we consider the testimony of biblical authors claiming to be communicating the word of God, can they be trusted?
What the Bible claims for itself …
The Bible claims to have come from God and to be all-sufficient to meet man’s spiritual needs (2 Tim. 3:14-17).1 This record of divine communications and supernatural activities was regarded and revered by early Jews and Christians as having been inspired by God’s Spirit (cf. Acts 1:16; 28:25; Heb. 3:7; 10:15-17). With human instrumentality understood, the heavenly throne is recognized as the ultimate source of biblical revelation (1 Cor. 2:7-13; Eph. 3:1-5; 2 Pet. 1:1-21). Although disclosed in various ways throughout history, the New Testament affirms that the divine will is now conveyed through God’s Son, Jesus the Christ (Heb. 1:1-4; 4:14).
From the earliest days of the Christian movement, the teachings of Jesus were considered authoritative (Acts 11:16; 20:35; 1 Cor. 7:10; 11:23-25; 1 Tim. 5:18; 1 John 1:1-4). The content of the preaching of Christ’s first-century representatives was not viewed as the “word of men” but rather the “word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13; 4:8). This spiritual message was reportedly not of human origin but came “through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12), was “received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), and constituted “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37).
Granted, these affirmations, in and of themselves, are not absolute proof that the Bible is in fact what it contends to be. But the absence of such claims would be a strong argument against it. The fundamental question is whether or not the testimony of these biblical authors is credible.
The Bible’s verifiability …
The information provided by biblical writers includes people, places, time periods, and events that can either be falsified or verified in the records of history. Other religions are built on claims of private encounters, or subjective ideas with no basis in any historic occasion, so there is no way to objectively investigate or historically test these assertions. Have you ever wondered why no other religions (or philosophical worldviews) engage in the same kind of reasoned apologetics that Christians do?2 Who else provides an intellectual and objective defense of their faith? The Christian movement and its sacred text stand on historically verifiable data.
The Bible is not merely a single record; it is the compilation of sixty-six separate documents spanning multiple geographical locations and time periods (produced over sixteen centuries!), representing numerous independent sources that remarkably harmonize. The New Testament alone contains over 140 eyewitness details and references to more than thirty historical figures, confirmed by archaeological discoveries and non-Christian writings.3
Michael Patton observes, “Christianity is the only viable worldview that is historically defensible. The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified. In contrast, the central claims of all other religions cannot be historically tested and, therefore, are beyond falsifiability or inquiry. They just have to be believed with blind faith.”4 The Christian movement began and flourished, not in a vacuum, but among real people in the first century who could readily test its claims (cf. Acts 26:26; 1 Cor. 15:6).
The Bible’s veracity ...
Until the mid-15th century (when the printing press was invented), biblical documents were copied by hand. While human error inevitably led to variations in the text, the science of textual criticism is committed to thoroughly addressing this issue. The process meticulously scrutinizes every variant reading to determine the precise wording of the biblical writings. Most textual variants involve relatively minor differences (e.g. spelling, reduplication, word order) that can readily be explained. No fundamental doctrine of the Bible is in doubt because of textual uncertainty.5
The probability that the original text of the New Testament has been preserved is based on two significant factors: (1) the vast number of available manuscripts with which to work, and (2) the chronological proximity of these documents to the originals. Before consideration is given to the documentary evidence undergirding the books of the New Testament, what is available to corroborate other ancient literary works?
The famous Iliad of Homer, after its initial oral transmission, was committed to writing sometime after Homer’s death in the 8th century BC and then edited to remove interpolations and copyist errors in the 6th century BC. The earliest extant fragments of this work date back to the 3rd century BC (about 500 years removed from the original), and the oldest complete copy is from the 10th century AD. In total there are 643 manuscripts of this epic poem (second only in attestation to the NT), with 764 disputed lines of text. Yet Homer’s Iliad is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the western world.
The Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar is preserved in only ten surviving manuscripts, the earliest of which is about nine centuries removed from the original. There are merely seven extant copies of Pliny’s Natural History, with a gap of around 750 years between the initial work and the oldest available manuscript. The History of Thucydides and the History of Herodotus are known from only eight copies each that are separated from the originals by approximately 1,300 years. And despite the scant textual evidence supporting these ancient works, one would be hard pressed to find a reputable historian, classicist, or even theologian who would dare question their historical value and credibility.
In comparison, the number of surviving manuscripts of the New Testament is exceedingly greater than that of any other ancient literary work. Not counting texts inscribed on potsherds and amulets, there are no less than 5,735 Greek New Testament manuscripts, the earliest of which date back to within decades of the originals. To this can be added the thousands of documents translated into Syriac, Latin, and other languages, plus plethoric quotations from early ecclesiastical writers. The unique challenge of New Testament textual criticism is not the scarcity of the documentary evidence but the unparalleled quantity! As the late F. F. Bruce has pointedly observed, “if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt” (New Testament Documents 10).
We attain knowledge of God the same way we attain knowledge of anything else. We begin by carefully observing the world around us, and then draw reasonable conclusions. If we are willing to look beyond the narrow confines of anti-theistic naturalism, we can easily concede a powerful, intelligent, creative force far greater than ourselves. If we are then open to the prospect of the Creator having communicated, and if we are willing to investigate (without prejudice) the one-volume collection of writings claiming to be from him, there is a wealth of knowledge we would miss out on otherwise.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 There are approximately 130 occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression (or one comparable to it), “The word of the Lord came to …” (Isa. 1:2; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1; etc.).
2 Note, for example, Apologetics Press <Link>, Apologia Institute <Link>, Focus Press <Link>, Warren Christian Apologetics Center <Link>.
3 For a non-exhaustive list, see N. Geisler and F. Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist 270-71.
4 Michael Patton, “Christianity, the World’s Most Falsifiable Religion,” credohouse.org (07-08-2013), <Link>.
5 See Changes in the Bible? Part 1 <Link>. With respect to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the most significant changes merely affect the order of the respective books and how they are classified. The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures produced in the 3rd–2nd centuries BC, and the Massoretic Text (MT) is the standard Hebrew canon revised, copied and distributed between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. With the discovery in 1947-1956 of nearly a thousand biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we can be confident that the text of the OT has been faithfully preserved.
--Kevin L. Moore
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