Is the Bible Historically Reliable?
The Bible is often dismissed as “a lot of old myths” or “full of contradictions.” These are ‘barrack room philosopher’ comments but are recited by many people who should know better. It would be surprising if there were no problems with a book which was written by 40 different authors over a period of 1600 years by a selection of kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen and scholars in three different languages. The wonder is that there is such a high level of unity and harmony throughout the Bible!
It is fundamentally important to consider:
The purpose of the Bible
The Bible is basically “salvation-history.” Hence Jesus claimed that it was all basically about him. See Luke 24:27, 44: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself .... He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’”
This raises very important issues. Christians believe that God is personal and so he communicates. He is a God of revelation. The heart of salvation-history is the person and work of Jesus. Given a God of love who seeks to save the world through Jesus, it is to be expected that he would have given us a reliable, permanent record of this revelation. The nature of God and salvation leads us to expect reliable Scripture.
Because the Bible is salvation-history, the Creation narratives do not have a scientific interest – as to how God made the world, but a theological interest – as to why God made the world. The opening chapters of Genesis are full of theology expressed in symbolical terms. They affirm that there is only one God who is distinct from creation, personal and good. They affirm human beings as dignified, responsible, sexual, spiritual, social, aesthetic and industrious beings. The story of creation is dealt with in one chapter. Then the focus is on the creation, fall and history of human beings.
Biblical history is very selective history. For example, historically-important kings are largely ignored if they did not further the salvation purposes of God.
The Gospels are selective. So John writes: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25). Elsewhere he makes the salvation-history purpose of the Gospels clear. “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31).
The Gospels are testimony, not biography. Their purpose is to further evangelism, teaching, worship and apologetics (defence of the Faith). Hence they major on the Passion and Death of Jesus and include extensive sections of his sayings.
The claims of the New Testament
We note, first of all:
a. Jesus’ attitude to the Bible
He regarded it as authoritative. He frequently uses the words “It is written ...” to quote it as an authoritative statement. Similarly he says that Scripture must be fulfilled e.g. about his arrest: “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way? At that time Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.’” (Matt 26:54-56).
Then he makes the strong statement: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:17-19).
b. Eye-witness accounts
The New Testament stresses the importance of eyewitness accounts. Luke writes: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4).
The First Epistle of John 1:1-3 states: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.” See also Heb 2:3 “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”
Then there is 2 Peter 1:16 “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
We should remember that the eyewitnesses lived on for most of the 1st century so they could easily have corrected inaccurate stories. Also many died for their faith. They would not die for what they knew was fiction. In actual fact we are aware that in those days oral tradition – the passing down of accounts verbally - was very accurate
c. Paul’s attitude to the Bible
In 2 Timothy 3:16 he writes: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness ...” In Rom 3:2 he says that the Jewish people “have been entrusted with the very words of God.”
d. Peter’s attitude to the Bible
We read: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
The problem of presuppositions
Many criticisms of the Bible being unhistorical are based upon a rejection of the idea that God intervenes in the world. This is as much a presupposition as the presupposition that he does.
The problem of ancient literature
We are dealing with literature which is at least 2000 years old:
a. Sometimes we don’t have enough facts
For example, we don’t have all the facts about the Resurrection narratives. It is possible to draft a harmony of the various accounts, but we do not know exactly what happened in detail. If we had all the details the perceived difficulties in harmonising the accounts might disappear.
We are also not fully aware of ancient customs which can greatly influence the biblical writers.
Sometimes problems are caused in textual transmission
The original manuscripts were copied and translated into different languages. The copies themselves received the same treatment. Inevitably, there have been mistakes in copying and translation, or manuscripts have been lost or damaged.
b. Sometimes faulty interpretation is read into Scripture
For example, not a few people believe that Genesis teaches that creation took place in 4004 BC. Actually this is simply based on the (mistaken) interpretation of Archbishop Ussher in the 19th century.
c. We must remember the complexity of the human origin of Scripture
Finally, it should be noted that many once-disputed facts in Scripture have been shown to be historically reliable through archaeology.
Does all this mean that there are no problems with Scripture? No, there are questions and difficulties. Does it mean that there can be no mistakes in Scripture – that it is “inerrant”? Again, we need to remember the purpose of Scripture. It is not simply a historical document, let alone a modern, western historical document. It is salvation history.
What Christians believe is that Scripture is utterly reliable and authoritative when it is dealing with matters of salvation. This covers the historical account of Jesus life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension and return. It also covers the theological and moral teaching of Scripture as seen in and through the New Testament.
However there is no need to give way to fear that if certain secondary details of Old Testament history, or if eyewitness accounts of how many blind men there were outside Jericho do not tie up, then the whole of Scripture collapses.
It has to be said though that Scripture is remarkably historically reliable. Professor F F Bruce wrote: “The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians. Somehow or other, there are people who regard a 'sacred book' as ipso facto under suspicion, and demand much more corroborative evidence for such a work than they would for an ordinary secular or pagan writing. From the viewpoint of the historian, the same standards must be applied to both. But we do not quarrel with those who want more evidence for the New Testament than for other writings; firstly, because the universal claims which the New Testament makes upon mankind are so absolute, and the character and works of its chief Figure so unparalleled, that we want to be as sure of its truth as we possibly can; and secondly, because in point of fact there is much more evidence for the New Testament than for other ancient writings of comparable date.” (The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? F. F. Bruce, Chapter 2).
© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page