This is a huge question, because if the bible proves untrustworthy, why bother with it? On the other hand, if we can demonstrate that the bible we read today is not a corruption of what was originally written, we have reason to take its contents and message seriously.
There are at least nine lines of evidence to pursue a real investigation into whether the New Testament and the Old Testament deserve to be taken seriously. These are divided into three parts – external evidence, internal evidence (considering the content), and circumstantial evidence (considering the impact this book has had). At the end are some resources for further study.
[Note: this is a long blog post. Feel free to skip to topics that interest you, and read those portions!]
Part 1: External Evidence
Line 1: The New Testament manuscripts
None of the NT’s original parchments still exist. Yet we have a New Testament. So, how do we know that what we have in our NT is the same as what Paul, John et al., first wrote?
We have a whole bunch of copies called “manuscripts.” Manuscripts are simply copies of the originals or of copies. These, were made for two reasons: To get the word out as the community grows to new locations; or, because the originals would wear out.
When you compare the number and quality of the manuscripts that we do have for the NT, relative to other ancient historical works, there is an embarrassment of riches!
||Oldest MSS (span)
|484-425 BC – Heroditus
||1st C AD (400+ yrs)
|460-400 BC – Thucydides
||1st C AD (400+ yrs)
|59 BC-AD 17 – Livy
||4th C (300 yrs)
|AD 56-120 – Tacitus
||9th C (700+ yrs)
|AD 69-9140 – Suetonius
||9th C (700 yrs)
|AD 40-90 – New Testament
||c.100-150 (<100 yrs)
[Plus: 10,000 Latin MSS & One million NT quotations in the church fathers (AD 100-350)]
No one argues that Tacitus’ writings are false, and yet we only have 3 surviving copies, and none of them closer than 700 years to the actual guy! In the NT’s case, we have thousands of manuscripts, several of which date to within 100 years of the events. There is no better attested ancient document than the NT. It is the most solid piece of ancient literature we know of.
Line 2: The Dead Sea Scrolls
Up until 1947, the earliest, best, complete manuscript for the Old Testament was from the 9th century AD. This is called the Masoretic Text, for the group of Jewish Scribes called “Masoretes” who cared for the scrolls of Scripture for about 500 years. That means that the gap between the LATEST Old Testament book (Malachi in the 400s BC) and our version of was around 1,200 years. Was it changed or corrupted during that time? We couldn’t know.
In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd inadvertly killed the giant of uncertainty with a small smooth stone. He was looking for a lost sheep (no kidding!) and threw some stones in a cave/hole near an area now known as Qumran, right by the Dead Sea. He heard the breaking of pottery and investigated further. He had discovered the “Dead Sea Scrolls” a trove of ancient writings dating from the 1st C BC to the 1st C AD. In addition to commentaries on Scripture and instructions about how to conduct the “monastic community” there are Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain almost all of the OT.
In comparing these scrolls to the Masoretic Text we can see the utter lack of corruption of the text. From the time of Jesus to the 9th C AD, we have essentially the same OT.
Line 3: Triangulating between MSS, Languages and quotations
What is triangulation? Let’s assume there are ten copies of the gospel of John. All of them have a very high degree of consistency in what’s written – they all have the same words, perhaps 99.5% of the time. Now consider that of the ten, three were discovered near Jerusalem, but the rest discovered in cities around the Mediterranean (Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, etc.). All of them are the same age, say, late 2nd century.
Triangulation is the study of probabilities: you consider the same words on the same text in 7 different locations within the same generation. Ten different copies of the same age all throughout the Empire means that there is some original somewhere that people have copied. The accuracy means that they have copied it well (and that some rogue leader in one city isn’t changing things for his benefit).
When you consider the 5,700 full and fragmentary portions of the NT text dating from the first 400 years after the NT events, and when you consider that they have been discovered all around the Mediterranean world, and when you consider that the later ones match the earlier ones, and when you add in the one million NT quotes from the Church Fathers in their pastoral and apologetic writings… well you have a very high confidence that the text we read today is the text as written by the eyewitnesses of Jesus.
As for the Old Testament. We have already met the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Let me introduce you to the Septuagint, a Greek copy of the Hebrew OT, translated in Alexandria in the 3rd Century BC. Meet also the Samaritan Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the OT, written in Aramaic), and the Syrian OT. You can triangulate these five resources in four languages and see with confidence that our OT text is not a terrible corruption.
Part 2: Internal evidence
Line 4: the NT authors appeal to living witnesses
Tim Keller notes that at two key places, the NT authors appeal to living witnesses who can corroborate what is being written. The only way you would do that is if you are 100% confident of what you are writing.
Mark 15:21 – “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention “Simon from Cyrene.” Mark adds a reference to Alexander and Rufus. Why? Perhaps Alexander and Rufus are known to Mark’s readers. Otherwise this is an extraneous reference, which is unlike the good communicator that Mark is. If they are known, in what capacity?
Consider that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus. He may well have been moved by that experience, pressed into service close to a dying Jesus. When Jesus’ resurrection was announced 3 days later, and attested to by the apostles, and the church exploded after Pentecost, it’s not unlikely that Simon himself became a follower. And, along with him, he began to raise his sons in his newfound faith. 15 or 50 years later (depending on your dating of Mark), Alexander and Rufus must still have been known in that community.
Mark is saying: “this is the story that I knew and heard, and you can check it out with these two guys whom you also know.” He is appealing to living witnesses (which points, incidentally, to an earlier dating of Mark).
The second appeal to living witnesses comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians. This is one of the earlier of Paul’s letters, and in chapter 15, he outlines again the historical events of the Gospel.
I Cor 15:3-7 – …[it is this,] that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, and to all the apostles, and last of all… to me.”
By signaling the 500 Christians who are still alive (mostly!), Paul is encouraging the readers to investigate his claims. Each of those 500 met the risen Christ. The Corinthian believers are urged to visit with them and discover from them the events of Easter.
Both Paul and Mark are signaling that they are self-consciously writing what they believe or know to be true. They are not appealing to living witnesses to corroborate their story, and at the same time fabricating a story.
Line 5: The contents are strange if this is made up
The very stories that are recorded in the four gospels and Acts are not the ones you would choose to include if you were doing anything other than reporting actual events.
Skeptics claim that (a) later church leaders wrote the gospels to keep their grip on power: “It’s the word of God, you have to believe”, all the while they are making up stories to keep the church following them. Or, (b) that the early Christians were so excited about Jesus that they mis-remembered things, and amplified who he was and what he did.
The reality is that that time and again the contents of the NT show the weaknesses, frictions, wrong-doings, and frailty of the people involved. This in itself points to the truthfulness of these books: why invent this… but if it happened, you are simply reporting it. Let’s look at three examples:
- (A) The king dying on a cross. Remember that the cross was the ultimate symbol of shame and humiliation. If you are making this up, you might have the leader die in battle valiantly as a martyr, or drown while saving a child’s life. But, you don’t have the guy submitted to a kangaroo court, and deserted by his friends, and dead on a Roman cross.
- (B) His friends abandoned him! The Apostles all left him to save their own skins, except John. Peter actually called down curses on himself to disown Jesus. These very friends are the earliest church leaders! If church leaders are concerned with suppressing anything that would undercut their leadership, OR, if they are inventing the right stories to promote their leadership, they should have scrubbed these episodes.
- (C) How about the huge importance of women in the Gospel narratives and in the Resurrection in particular. Don’t forget, around this time, women could not give independent testimony in court, and have very little legal standing. A well-known Jewish prayer from this era: “Thank-you God that you did not make me a dog, a Gentile or a woman.” The gospels portray the women as the only ones who stay near the cross, the first to serve the Lord on the day after the Passover, and are the first to discover that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The men are fearful and hiding, the women are devoted and bold! Consider also: that the very first Easter Evangelists were women. Women, who could not be trusted in a court of law to give accurate testimony. Each of the 4 gospels is clear that women give accurate testimony of the resurrection, even though the men didn’t believe them. (Lk 24:11) The text vindicates them. The point here is that men of that era would not likely have invented this type of story: Apostles fearful and the women courageous and vindicated. Perhaps the gospel writers reported what actually happened.
Line 6: There is a self-conscious awareness that this is the word of God
All the way through the bible, the different authors knew they were writing down God’s words & God’s people knew these words were to be followed as from God.
For instance, in the Pentateuch, over and over again, a section will begin with, “And God said…” or “Thus you shall say to Israel…” In Jeremiah alone we see approximately 150 repetitions of “This is what the Lord says…” All of the Prophets use this introduction repeatedly. The Old Testament very clearly considers itself the word of God.
The New Testament does too, once you read it closely. For instance, 1 Tim 5:17-18 says: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain” and “the worker deserves his wages.”
Where are these two quotes from? Well, “Muzzle” is Dt 25:4. But, “Wages” is nowhere in OT. However Jesus says it, and Luke records it in Luke 10:7. Paul says, The gospel of Luke and the book of Deuteronomy are equally Scripture! That’s no small claim to make for one the training of a Pharisee.
Peter takes the same tack: that God is writing new Scriptures, verbally inspired and authoritative for living. 2 Peter 3:15 – bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
In effect, Peter says Paul’s letters are Scripture, on a par with books of Moses, Psalms, & Prophets. And, if people distort the meaning of Paul’s letters, that’s to be expected, because that’s what they do with Scriptures.
There are other passages that you can look up to explore the self-conscious nature that Scripture has of itself being God’s Words: For example, 1 Cor 2:11-13, Matt 5:13-49, Exodus 19-20.
Part 3: Circumstantial Evidence
Line 7: The Bible is still extremely popular, despite repeated attempts in history and today to ban or destroy it.
According to the 2015 Guinness Book of World Records, the Bible has been sold or distributed over 5 billion times! (Not including downloads.) The whole Harry Potter series—the world’s best selling series—has sold about a tenth as much, 450 million copies. The ministry of the Gideons alone have distributed 2 billion Bibles and testaments in the last century in 100+ countries.
Now consider that the Bible is, by far, the book most often banned or under threat of destruction: Communist regimes, dictatorships, Caesars. Even the Medieval Catholic church tried to ban the publication of the bible in the common languages—don’t forget that the English Catholics burned William Tyndale at the stake, in part for translating, printing and distributing English bibles!
I’m not sure how many conclusions you should come to about this line of evidence, but it needs to be present in our thinking: the most distributed book is also the most persecuted book. Do not both of those facts say something about the potential/probability of a Divine hand overseeing this special book?
Line 8: Changed Lives
This is fun: think about individuals now. From “fraidy-cat, peasant fisherman Peter” who became the greatest spokesman for Christianity in its decade… what turned him around? The Word of God alive in his Soul by the power of the Holy Spirit (Read Acts 1-2). Indeed, all the disciples who were fearful and crestfallen on the weekend of the Crucifixion became leaders who led and died for the gospel of Christ. They went out in every direction, these peasants did. Thomas all the way to India with the News of Jesus!
Think of figures from church history. Augustine, who became one of the church’s greatest thinkers and writers, was radically changed from a pleasure-seeking lifestyle with a weird Manichaeism theology. How? By reading Romans 13, and God piercing his heart.
Think of Frank Morrison who set out to write a book (in the mid-20th C) fully and finally discounting the resurrection. Skeptic. But, a funny thing happened on the way to disproving… he ended up a believer, and the book he wrote was “Who moved the Stone?”. The first chapter is entitled, “The book that refused to be written,” as he documented how God changed his thinking and life in the course of his investigation.
Consider Chuck Colson, Nixon’s “Hatchet Man”. In the fallout from Watergate, he was given a bible and led through it by a friend. IN the course of his troubles, he came to Christ, and went to prison as a believer. He came out and founded “Prison Fellowship” to reach others in prisons across the country.
Consider those left behind by Dylan Roof, who shot and killed 9 people at “Mother Emmanuel” church in Charleston last June. Those family members, in their grief, planted their lives on the message of Scripture: forgive as God forgave you in Christ. And, they intentionally and publicly forgave Dylan Roof. These are lives changed by Scripture.
Line 9: Changed History
Consider all the fingerprints on history that have come straight out of the bible:
- Meta-calendar – our whole conception of where we are in history relates to the birth of Christ. BC is “before Christ” and AD is Anno Domini (“year of our Lord”). Even the more politically correct substitutes of BCE (before common era) and CE (common era) don’t change the underlying referent.
- Human Rights – Study the history of the concept of human rights, and you are tracing the history of theological thought, right back to the pages of Scripture itself. Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and their heirs arrived at the fully-orbed concepts of human rights by pondering the ideas and declarations of Scripture.
- Freedom – a subset of human rights. Consider that throughout the world today, “freedom” is a highest ideal. The ability of every person to make choices that bring flourishing. Now consider whether that has arisen in Hinduism, Islam, Bhuddism, animistic religions, atheism or Christianity. (Note: Atheism is a very new belief as a ‘worldview,’ perhaps only in the last 300 years out of 30,000 years of recorded history).
- Scientific progress – it was the thinkers of the Renaissance/Reformation era that began to explore “God’s book of Nature” once they had explored “God’s Book of Scripture.” The scientific method (and the accompanying discoveries) was only developed in the Christian West.
- Capitalism – this too only flourished where Christianity and Scripture’s principles had taken root. Though several world empires have been fabulously wealthy, none had as fully developed a system to allow many to enter into the ownership and reward of ownership that Capitalism has allowed for. (And, Capitalism is by no means perfect; but it sure brings more prosperity to more people than any other economic system tried in history).
- Slavery – for the very first time in history a culture abolished slavery. It was Medieval Europe (around AD500-700), because of the teaching of Scripture and the understanding that every person is in God’s image, and that Christ died for persons in God’s image. They reasoned, then, that we cannot own persons. That slavery in the West started again at the time of the discovery of the New World is a function of the greed of man, not a deficiency in the moral rootings. And, while in the Antebellum US South, many Christians (mis-)used Scripture to defend slavery, it was the faith-motivated abolitionists who ultimately won the day. (Note also, there are at least five ways in which slavery as practiced in the South is not at all like the so-called slavery described in Ancient Israel.)
From External evidence of 5,700 manuscripts and the Dead Sea Scrolls, to the internal evidence of the content of the stories, to the circumstantial evidence of the Bible’s re-shaping of history. This is book that must be reckoned with. It does not seem to be a trivial, legend-filled, haphazard, useless collection of ancient writings. Rather, an honest and serious inquiry into its formation, content and effects brings a confidence in the reader.
For further reading
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham
The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?, FF Bruce
The Old Testament Documents: Are they Reliable and Relevant?, WC Kaiser
The Reason for God, Tim Keller
The Book that Made your World, Vishal Mangalwadi
The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark
 Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p101f.