Biblical Reliability and the Divine Preservation of Scripture
Another relevant subject to apologetics is the issue of whether the texts of our current Bibles have been preserved. Often when presenting a case for the Christian worldview, a detractor may ask whether the text of our modern Bibles remains the same as that of the early Christians. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, the legitimacy and historical preservation of the Old Testament is no longer seriously doubted, therefore my brief summary of the texts of Scripture will focus on the New Testament (hereafter NT). The implications of this question cannot be overstated; if we cannot trust the historicity of the Christian Scriptures then the very hope of Christianity is undermined.
In the process of examining the reliability of the NT documents, we must apply several general rules of historical criticism, while leaving our possibilities open to the reality of supernatural activity. In my presentation I will present three lines of evidence that are strong reasons for us to believe that the NT record is not only reliable, but if the NT documents are not historically reliable then no ancient work is reliable.
First, we need to examine approximately when the NT documents were written. If we can attain a good enough time frame for when they were written then we can tell if enough time passed for rumor and myth to creep in. Gary Habermas states that in testing a historical document’s reliability, “Early evidence is strongly preferred, and in reference to Jesus, data from A.D. 30 to 50 would be exemplary.” So, one is left to ask “Do the NT autographs fit within that time frame?”
Amongst non-conservative scholarship, it is usually agreed that the Gospel of Mark was the first one composed. Within the conservative, evangelical ranks, scholars tend to disagree and debate over which Gospel came first. Some take matthean, markan, and even sometimes lukan priority (though, admittedly, this is rare). But, the high consensus of NT scholarship would agree that the book of Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke. If we work back from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we can come to a reasonable dating of the NT Gospels.
Luke, a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, wrote the book of Acts. He set out to compose an orderly account of the early church to present to his friend Theophilus. In the process Luke paid painstaking detail to the ordering of dates and places in which their travels took place. Habermas further explains:
Evangelical scholars often date each of the synoptic Gospels ten or so years earlier than their critical counterparts, who prefer dates of roughly A.D. 65-90. Perhaps the most promising way to support the traditional approach is to argue backward from the Book of Acts. Most of this book is occupied with the ministries of Peter and Paul, and much centers in the city of Jerusalem. The martyrdoms of Stephen (7:54-60) and the apostle James (12:1-2) are recorded, and the book concludes with Paul under arrest in Rome (28:14-31). Yet Acts says nothing concerning the deaths of Paul and Peter (mid-60s A.D.) and the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) are also strangely absent. Further, the book ends enigmatically with Paul under house arrest, without any resolution to the situation. How could the author of Acts not mention these events or resolve Paul’s dilemma, each of which is centrally related to the text’s crucial themes?… It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the author did not record these items simply because they had not yet occurred. These omissions argue persuasively for an early date for the composition of Acts, before the mid 60’s A.D.
All of this to say, that with this early date of the book of Acts, we must keep in mind that this book is the second of a two-part work (the first being Luke’ s Gospel). So, whether Luke’s Gospel account is the first, second, or third to be compiled, either way it was written before 60A.D. Now as we can see, that puts the authors of the Gospels within at most little less than 30 years away from the events which they record. This bit of evidence alone should keep us from speculating that much time elapsed myths crept into the NT accounts.
To give a relevant example, if someone wrote a book in which they stated that it was not the German Nazis that persecuted the Jews, but rather the Chinese, we simply would dismiss it as foolishness. There’s simply too much information available to us to accept such nonsense as historical fact. And it has been about the same time between Auschwitz and today as it was between the events the Gospel authors documented and the time in which the wrote them (60yrs at latest, John’s Gospel was written in the 90’s A.D.)
The second line of evidence we will briefly go over. In this line we will briefly look over points that if the Gospels authors were not simply recording what actually occurred they would have been wise to leave out. If someone wanted to start a new religion it would seem like plain old common sense that you would not insert stories in your “Gospel” that cast a shadow of doubt upon your character.
Yet, in the Gospels we find many occasions where the disciples bickered amongst themselves about who would be greatest in God’s Kingdom, showing that they were not as “heavenly minded” as we would have believed. We also have the accounts of Peter’s denial of Christ, the disciples fleeing the scene after Christ’s arrest, Christ’s prayer to the Father to remove the cup of suffering from Him if possible, and the discovery of the empty tomb by women. If the early disciples were supremely interested in public relations for their newfound religion, these bits of information were not going to help their cause.
Once again, we have every right to believe that the reason such events were recorded in the Gospel accounts was that even though they did not elevate the disciples to a “squeaky-clean” status, they nonetheless actually happened and that was the main objective of the NT writers, historical and factual accuracy. These things really did happen.
Lastly, we must look at the overwhelming support of the NT’s historicity via the manuscript evidence. Other documents that we generally consider historically reliable pale in comparison with the textual corroboration of the NT. Many other ancient works that remain for us today, such as Josephus Jewish War, and Tacitus Annals of Imperial Rome, last in fewer than 20 copies today. In the case of Tacitus’ writings, while the originals were written circa A.D. 116, His first six books exist today in only one manuscript, and it was copied about A.D. 850. Josephus‘ Jewish War exists in only nine Greek manuscripts, and these manuscripts were written during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries! Yet we generally treat these documents as reliable and historically accurate.
Generally, the numbers for the ancient historical documents is much is just as bleak, yet their reliability is not questioned. The average numbers are something like this: Manuscripts number less than twenty (normally much less), with the time interval between the original’s and earliest copies found being anywhere from 700 to 1400 years. When we turn to the NT documents we find nothing like this at all.
The amount of Greek manuscripts we have, existing in either full texts or fragments, number in the ballpark of 5,000! And when we examine the dates for the earliest copies that have been discovered we find that the range normally agreed upon by NT textual critics is anywhere from 50-200 years. Compared to other writings of antiquity this is akin to a news flash! Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and the author of The Paleography of Greek Papyri stated, “in no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament.”
In closing, when we read the NT documents we can be assured that the author’s were concerned with faithfully recording the events they documented. We can also be confident that the text we have today is the very one that the early church received from the authors the NT records. While much has been left out of this presentation for the sake of brevity I feel that these are strong lines of evidence in defense of the historicity and reliability of the NT. I leave you with this thought, if the NT doesn’t pass the test of reliability, considering its outstanding corroboration by both textual criticism in the fields of dating and manuscript evidence, then can we really know anything about the ancient world at all?
Ultimately though, we must press the unbeliever to this point: to reject the message of the NT because it simply “seems likely” to have been corrupted in the transmission process is to beg the question. How so? If the Bible is indeed the Word of God, and the God that Scripture speaks of (who has full authority and control over all things) promises that His word would never pass away, to deny that He would preserve His word is simply to reject the God of whom it speaks. The objection of the nonbeliever would be reduced to “I don’t believe the Scriptures are true because they are not true,” a rather poor argument indeed (notice that essentially this is what the unbelievers argument reduced to in part 1). If Scripture is the word of God then we should readily be willing to accept the fact that the history of its transmission would be radically different from that of merely human writings.
No, God has kept His promises. He has not allowed man to corrupt the saving message of His beloved Son. Textual criticism is a great witness to this truth.