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How Do We Know the Bible Is True? The best-selling book in history remains one of the most controversial. Revered by Christians as God's holy Word, the Bible spans centuries of history, contains a variety of literary styles and culminates in the person of Jesus Christ. But how do we know the Bible is true? Isn't it just a collection of stories and myths? Even if it contains some history, is there any way we can trust it completely? What is the Bible? Answering these questions requires that we understand what the Bible is. It's not a book that arrived in complete form at one point in history. Instead, the Bible was written over a period of some 1,500 years by a number of authors. Although it is viewed as one book, it's actually a collection of many books. It is called God's Word even though God did not physically write it. Instead, God worked through everyday people, inspired by Him, to record what Christians accept as the Bible. The Old Testament is primarily a record of God's dealings with His chosen people – the Hebrews or Jews. The New Testament continues the record with first century accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus and the struggles faced by new Christians in a hostile culture. The Bible Today: Miraculous or Not? Today the Bible is controversial for several reasons. For example, it is filled with miracles. In the Old Testament, God parts the Red Sea, allowing His people to escape a hoard of angry Egyptians. In the book of Joshua, the sun is said to have stood still, while Jonah records a prophet swallowed by a large fish. In the New Testament the blind receive sight, Jesus walks on water and is resurrected after being executed on a cross. In a largely naturalistic age, meaning belief only in the material world, miracles are often doubted. The supernatural – anything beyond the natural world – is dismissed or relegated to a second-class status. This often results in doubt about the Bible. Can we trust it to be true? Are we really expected to believe the supernatural events it records? This is a bias that defines miracles out of existence rather than reasoning that if God exists, then miracles are possible. Truth and the Bible Asking if the Bible is true, means that we need to have some understanding of truth. What is truth? While this question is often presented as a deep philosophical puzzle suitable only for the "brainy" to tackle, the answer is not so complex. Truth is what corresponds to reality. Consequently, what is real is true, what is unreal is false. The Bible makes some very distinctive truth claims. It claims, for instance, that God exists. It also claims that He has chosen to communicate with us through His creation, our moral conscience, and via the Bible. Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh and that the only way for human beings to be saved is through Him (John 14:6). Moreover, the death and resurrection of Jesus are also key to Christian theology. These claims the Bible makes either correspond to reality or they do not. Christians believe that they do correspond to reality, meaning that the Bible is true. God really exists, Jesus is not a myth, and the resurrection really happened. But how do we know this? Knowledge and the Bible Sometimes Christians quote the Bible to prove the Bible. Most skeptics are rightly cautious of this approach. Quoting the Bible to prove the Bible is viewed as being circular reasoning or illogical. After all, quoting the Bible to prove the Bible assumes the Bible is true, which is really the point of contention or discussion. But if the Bible can be shown to be a reliable document, accurately recorded and transmitted through history, from God to us, then we can build a strong case that the Bible is indeed true. Evidence for the Bible Evidence for the Bible can take many forms. There is, for instance, physical evidence. We have copies of the manuscripts and throughout history these copies show that the Bible has been transmitted accurately. Despite common skeptical claims that the Bible has often been changed through the centuries, the physical evidence tells another story. The New Testament records are incredibly accurate. There are minor differences in manuscripts, called variants, but none of these variants impact or change key Christian beliefs or claims. Other physical evidence includes archeological finds. The Archaeological Study Bible presents many notes and articles documenting how archeology has again and again proven that the Bible does correspond to historical reality. There are other kinds of evidence that the Bible is true. These have to do with internal consistency and coherence. Although the Bible was written over many centuries by different writers, the messages it contains are coherent and consistent. The Bible presents a coherent theology and worldview and presents this material consistently. Moreover, the Christian worldview is robust, reasonable and grounded in history. Jesus and the Bible Although there are other lines of reasoning to support the claim that the Bible is true, one of the most powerful is found in Jesus. If it can be shown that the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – present an accurate record of the life and ministry of Jesus, then Jesus Himself becomes an argument in support of the truth of the Bible. If the Bible has been shown to be reliable, this line of reasoning is no longer circular, but rational. In other words, what the Bible records about Jesus, including what He says about God, human nature, salvation and the Old Testament record, can then be trusted. What does Jesus say about God's Word? He says, "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, NIV), thus testifying to the authority of the Bible. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them," meaning that Jesus believed and trusted in the Old Testament "Law" and "Prophets." Jesus also said, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Matthew 4:4). Space does not allow a thorough investigation of the views of Jesus on the Bible, but it is sufficient here to note that He believed God spoke through the Bible, He overtly upheld belief in several Old Testament stories, and revered the Bible as holy and authoritative. The cornerstone of Christian belief is the resurrection of Christ. Even Paul the Apostle admitted that if the resurrection did not happen, Christian faith "is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). In this sense, making a case for the truth of the resurrection also makes a case for the truth claims of Jesus and, in turn, the reliability and truth of the Bible. Does Our View of the Bible Matter? Liberal theologians sometimes point out that our view of the Bible doesn't really matter. So long as we gain strength and insights from it, they say, that is enough. Following this line of reasoning, they remove many miracles of the Bibles or simply treat them as myths. This is a mistake, particularly when it comes to the Resurrection of Christ. Our view of the Bible matters immensely, especially if what it claims is indeed true. If it is, as we have argued, then our eternal destiny hinges on how we will respond to Christ and His calling. Will we reject Him or accept Him? There is much more that could be said on the matter of truth and the Bible. The rest of the articles in this series will address the Bible's reliability, how we got it, how to interpret it, responding to its critics and suggestions for handling seemingly difficult Bible passages. Is the Bible Reliable? If, for instance, the Bible is full of historical and factual errors or blatantly contradicts itself, it's hard to trust it or view it as reliable. "I'm glad your faith works for you, but can you really know whether or not the Bible is reliable? Wasn't it written thousands of years ago? How do you know it hasn't been translated and retranslated so much that it no longer says what it used to say?" These questions or variations of them are often asked about the Bible. Rather than responding "just believe," the Bible calls us to, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). Since Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity, and since what we know about Christ and God's plan of salvation is found in the Bible, it is important that we take questions about the reliability of the Bible seriously. As a result, this article will look at the meaning of "reliability" in both the Old and New Testaments. What does "reliable" mean? Let's first consider the meaning of reliable. In short, reliability means something is trustworthy. It can also mean that something is consistently good in its quality. In reference to the Bible, reliability has to do with whether or not what it contains – from ideas to history to geography and more – is trustworthy or not. If, for instance, the Bible is full of historical and factual errors or blatantly contradicts itself, it's hard to trust it or view it as reliable. While we will address these sorts of questions in other articles in this series,1the question of the reliability of the Bible is addressed in this article primarily in relation to the manuscript and other evidence supporting the Old and New Testaments. Before getting to the Old Testament, however, our line of reasoning supporting the reliability of the Bible is best begun with the New Testament. Is the New Testament Reliable? The New Testament contains 27 books, although some are not books per se, but letters. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are key in establishing what we know about Jesus including his birth, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and more.2 There are several lines of reasoning we can take in demonstrating the reliability of the New Testament and, specifically, the four Gospels. First, we can look at the number of manuscripts or fragments available. Second, we can compare existing manuscripts and fragments to see if they are reliable when it comes to what they report. Here we would look for serious contradictions, omissions, additions, errors, etc. Third, we can compare manuscript copies and fragments with copies we have today and find out if there have been significant changes or if the New Testament we have today is reliable. The approach outlined in these three points highlights some aspects of what takes place in the discipline known as textual criticism. In the case of the New Testament, we have thousands of complete manuscripts and multiple thousands more fragments available. There are more than 5,000 copies of the entire New Testament or extensive portions of it. In addition, we have several thousand more fragments or smaller portions of the New Testament. If these numbers don't seem like a lot, compared to other works of ancient history, the manuscript evidence and copies for the New Testament far outweigh manuscript evidence for other works. For instance, there are less than 700 copies of Homer's Iliad and only a handful of copies of any one work of Aristotle.3So when it comes to manuscript evidence, the New Testament definitely has numbers on its side. It's also interesting that within the early centuries of the Christian church a number of scholars quoted the New Testament. Amazingly, they quoted the New Testament so much that every single verse of all 27 books of the New Testament is quoted by these scholars with the exception of only 11 verses, all within a few hundred years of the beginning of the Church.4 We could also add the fact that much of the New Testament was written within just a few decades of the death and resurrection of Christ. First Corinthians, for instance, dates from the 50s – only twenty years or so after the death and resurrection of Christ. This is important because 1 Corinthians 15 contains key elements of the gospel message, emphasizing the importance of Christ's resurrection, and claiming that more than 500 people had seen the risen Christ. People who would still have been alive at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians would have been around to corroborate or criticize the claims made in the letter. There are many other features substantiating the reliability of the New Testament documents. 5 But what about the Old Testament? Is the Old Testament Reliable? The reason we began with making a brief case for the reliability of the New Testament is because of the claims it makes about the Old Testament. Jesus, for instance, made a number of claims supporting the reliability of the Old Testament documents. Jesus affirmed seven key points in relation to the Old Testament, as explained by Norman Geisler: "Jesus affirmed its divine authority … its imperishability … its unbreakability … its ultimate supremacy … its factual inerrancy … its historical reliability … [and] its scientific accuracy."6 Matthew 5:17-18 sums up the approach Jesus took in confirming the reliability of the Old Testament: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill 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." Why is it important that we cite such passages demonstrating that Jesus accepted the Old Testament as reliable? Because, if the New Testament is reliable in its claims, then Jesus is who He claimed to be – God in the flesh, substantiated by His resurrection from the dead. As such, His remarks about the Old Testament are likewise reliable. But what about manuscript evidence for the Old Testament? Space does not allow a thorough treatment here, but it is likewise incredibly accurate. Manuscripts that are part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, clearly show that our modern copies of the Old Testament are incredibly accurate.7 Is the Bible Reliable? Based on the evidence, it surpasses all expectations for trustworthiness. How Did We Get the Bible? Some people think the Bible was all written down about the same time, copied and distributed. But the Bible is not "instant" Scripture and it wasn't all written down around the same time. The Bible is the foundation of Christianity. In it we learn about the human condition, our need for salvation, God's plan through Christ, the everlasting joy that awaits those who trust in Jesus, and more. So far in this series we've looked at the question of truth in relation to the Bible, as well as its reliability. Now we'll turn to the important question, "How did we get the Bible?" In doing so we'll look at four key areas regarding the Bible: inspiration, canonization, transmission and translation. Before we do so, let's look at some misconceptions about how we got the Bible. Misconceptions About the Bible Some people think the Bible was all written down about the same time, copied and distributed. But the Bible is not "instant" Scripture and it wasn't all written down around the same time. Instead, the books of the Bible were written over a lengthy period of time by different people inspired by God. Another misconception about the Bible is that it was merely created by a select few in order to consolidate, gain or maintain power and prestige. Given the adversity faced by the Hebrew people and, later, the persecution suffered by Christians, this explanation is far from plausible. For instance, rather than gaining power or prestige, the early Christians were severely oppressed, while many others were killed – martyred for believing the message of the gospel. Yet another misconception says there are many different "Bibles" so how can one be sure the Christian version is the right one? This misconception can take different forms. One form sets forth many different "gospels" as proof that the New Testament record of Jesus is not necessarily the true version. What about the Gospel of Thomas? Keep in mind that there are dozens of writings claiming to be Christian gospels along the lines of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But very few copies of these rival "gospels" exist. The Gospel of Thomas, of which there are references to more than one version, has distinctly Gnostic influences. In short, the Gnostics believed that the flesh is bad, but the spirit is good. As a result, they denied that Jesus truly came in the flesh, a position the early church countered by writings such as 1 John. Thomas also presents Jesus doing some things very much out of character. In one passage, for example, Jesus causes a boy to wither (die). It's also important to keep in mind that these additional "gospels" appear in the historical record long after the New Testament manuscripts, making these "lost" gospels highly suspect not only in reference to their content, but their reliability. Transmission and Translation Stories and claims about other "gospels" raise important questions about the transmission and translation of the Bible or any historical record. Since we've covered these topics somewhat in other articles in this series we'll only cover the topic briefly here so we can get to the inspiration and canonization of the Bible. "Transmission" in relation to the Bible has to do with how the contents of the Bible were transmitted through history. If the record of transmission is poor, then the record we have is highly suspect. But if the record of transmission is rich, having a variety of manuscript copies for instance, then we have cause for trusting the reliability of the record. In the case of the New Testament, the transmission of the documents through history is astounding. Not only do we have thousands of manuscript copies, as well as thousands more fragments or portions of the New Testament, but in comparing the New Testament copies we have today in various languages with those available centuries ago we can see the message remains intact. Errors or changes are slight, known as variants, and do not change any central belief of Christianity. When it comes to transmission and translation, then, we can indeed trust the documents. God-breathed But isn't it possible to have an accurately transmitted record that is still just a human invention? That's where inspiration comes in. The word "inspire" comes from the Latin, meaning to breathe on or into. Hence, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is God-breathed." As Geisler and Nix write, "… inspiration is the process by which Spirit-moved writers recorded Godbreathed writings." Inspiration means that human writers were inspired by God and moved by the Holy Spirit to record accurately what God wanted them to preserve. It does not mean God took control of people in the sense of some occult practices known as automatic writing, where the writer is in a trance-like state. It also doesn't mean the writers of the Bible were simply taking dictation. But it does mean that their words were divinely inspired and recorded. The Bible was written by real people, living in real places, recording real historical events, and also communicating God's real truths. The New Testament Canon Now the question remains about how the Christian church ultimately put the parts of the Bible together. This really relates to the New Testament, as the Old Testament was already accepted and codified in the books accepted by the Jewish people as divinely inspired. But following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ around 33 A.D., the fledgling Christian church found itself struggling for survival and, in the process, writing inspired documents that would later become the New Testament. The process of canonization has to do with what writings are deemed inspired and thus included in the New Testament canon. The word canon originated in reference to a measuring reed or standard by which something is measured. In reference to the Bible a canon has to do with genuinely inspired writings. The Church was very methodical in reference to the New Testament canon. Several criteria were necessary in order for a writing to be accepted, but we will mention three here. First, the document in question had to conform to the rule of faith, "conformity between the document and orthodoxy, that is, Christian truth recognized as normative in the churches." Second, the document required some sort of apostilicity, "which as a criterion came to include those who were in immediate contact with the apostles." Third, "a document's widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches everywhere" was taken into consideration. From God to us, the Bible is true, reliable, and inspired.