The Trustworthiness of Scripture
- Justin Holcomb Contributing Writer
- Updated Jun 21, 2023
Critics have brought many challenges that doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible. Some have said that the Scriptures we have today are not the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. However, we will see these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.
New Testament Textual Variants
The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. Unfortunately, we do not have any original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, we have copies, often hand-written by scribes, to preserve and circulate the apostles' words so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact that the original manuscripts were copied shows how vital these writings were to local church congregations. However, in copying the manuscripts, the scribes often made small changes, some unintentional and others intentional.
For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were written in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase “GODISNOWHERE.” A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Context would have to determine the meaning of the phrase, so it is not unsurprising that a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once (or once when it should have been written twice), skipped over text sections because the exact words occurred later down the page, or misspelled words. These are all examples of unintentional changes.
Other times, however, the scribes changed the texts they were copying for various reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or even make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues that the Bible is not reliable, recognizes that “most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away, the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”
Because there are many variations in the New Testament manuscripts, some argue that the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enable us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, “having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text.” Scholars are able to compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, based on internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely gets the original wording right.
Antiquity and Multiplicity of New Testament Manuscripts
The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th–11th centuries, over 800 years after the originals were written. Regarding the number of manuscripts that have survived, there are 200 manuscripts of Suetonius, 133 of Josephus, and 75 of Herodotus.
By comparison, when we compare these ancient works to the New Testament, the difference is astonishing. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around 125 A.D., while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late second and early third centuries. So, whereas the best ancient historical works have a period of 500–800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess.
In addition, the number of manuscripts of the Gospels is staggering compared to other ancient works. As Roberts notes, “The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings.” This figure does not even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. We have nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels alone. This meant that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text that we have.
Trustworthy and Reliable
Because of who God is and what He has done to preserve his word, we can confidently believe that the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, is not primarily founded on principles but the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As John Gresham Machen writes, “Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness.” Scripture reveals the central climax of history: God’s gracious act of bringing salvation through Jesus Christ.
(This article first published as "The Trustworthiness of Scripture" on Christianity.com on February 4, 2013)
How Should the Bible be Read and Interpreted?
The following is a transcript of the video above, edited for readability.
The Bible should be read and interpreted as the word of God. Sometimes people will say, "You should read the Bible like any other book." I actually think that's wrong. I think you should read the Bible as though God has inspired these authors. That starts us from certain assumptions. Number one, it says they're right. Number two, whatever they say about earlier authors, they're right about that too. What I would say is that you should start reading and pay close attention to the details. Then when you find a later author or even the same author, like let's say you're in another book of Moses, you start in Genesis and now you're reading in Numbers and you read something and you say to yourself, "This statement here in numbers 24:9 sounds a lot like Genesis 12:3." That's right.
What he's doing is he's interpreting that earlier text for you, and that's going to continue all the way through the Bible. We should read attentively as though this is true, as though these authors are correct about the way that they're interpreting earlier statements, and as they interpret earlier statements, they're shutting down alternative possibilities of meaning for us. They're telling us what that earlier text meant and so we should try to discern how the biblical authors have themselves interpreted earlier biblical material.
("How Should the Bible be Read and Interpreted?" by Jim Hamilton first published on Christianity.com on November 6, 2013)
Why is it Important to Memorize Scripture?
The following is a transcript of the video above, edited for readability.
It used to be more common in Sunday School among Christians. I've been saved since the '70s, middle, early '70s, and it was commonplace for Christians to be memorizing scripture. Many or few, at least, of scriptures. But I think it's become a lost art, unfortunately. And I think because of that, the church is becoming more powerless because we're devaluing the scriptures' importance in our communications. I'd far rather communicate what God has to say than what I have to say, and that's what's going to catch the heart rather than my communications. Because the Bible says about itself that, "A man's born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible by the word of God, which lives and abides forever."
And even when Jesus says in John 3:5 where he says, "Except the man, be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," I believe that Jesus means by water, not water baptism or any other kind of literal water, but rather the Word of God. 'Cause in John 15:3 Jesus says, "Now you are clean through the word, which I have spoken unto you." In John 6:63. Jesus says, "The flesh prophets nothing. It is the spirit who quickens." So the quickening power of God is generated by the Word of God. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. So if I want to communicate truth to people and expect results, I want God to do the speaking, and I only want to be the trumpet from which the blast of God is sounded. And I think it's valuable to memorize scripture.
I think it's important to start by writing out the scripture. Put them on index cards and on the back have the scripture reference. Pick out passages that are key passages. Your John 3:16s, your Ephesians 2:8 and 9, Titus 3:5, Acts 4:12, John 3:3, Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, Romans, on and on I could go 10:9 and 10. These are key passages that especially evangelistically are very useful for us, even when we minister to fellow Christians. "As iron sharpens iron so man sharpens the countenance of his friends." What should sharpen me as a Christian more than anything else is the scriptures because we who are believers, we have an ear to hear the Word, and the Word is life-giving and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword. So I'm strongly emphatic upon the importance of memorizing the Word.
And if you're selective in what you memorize, those are the verses that you're going to be using to communicate whether you're a preacher, whether you do just everyday evangelism, or want to be a witness for Christ, or you're a Sunday school teacher, or you want to just edify people, counsel people, which we should be doing in our body life as Christians the best way to communicate truth is scripture. And I think people say, "Well, I have a general idea of what the Bible says, and I kind of quote it." Well, that's good. That's better than not at all. But I think better than that is to make efforts. And it doesn't take a whole lot of effort. If you have an index card, stick it in your pocket when you go to work, I bet you take a drive to work. Most people, 10 minutes to an hour drive to go to work. You could memorize one verse a day. That's not hard to do. It's better than doing nothing during that time while just listening to secular radio or something else.
I'm not saying you can't use your time wisely, but that would be a valuable time that you could start with memorizing one verse a day. And I advise people do one verse a week at least, and if you do it for 52 weeks, in one year, you'll have 52 verses memorized. 52 more than what you had the year before. And if people do that on a regular basis, it would be very basic. And I think if people fall in love with the Word of God, which we should be, and find those valuable passages, seek to memorize it. Choose an easy translation that you would more likely be using in a language that is understandable to your audience, whoever you want to use it for.
Some people memorize scripture just for their own edification rather than for others. And, of course, the there's value for both. "The liberal soul shall be made fat. He that waters shall be watered also himself," Proverbs 11:25. So there's no doubt that I get value from memorizing the Word for myself, but it's a great thing to be able to communicate God's word in God's exact ways, and that is thus sayeth the Lord.
("Why is it Important to Memorize Scripture?" by Gary George first published on Christianity.com on December 11, 2013)
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