Many so-called experts claim that we cannot trust the Bible. They assert that the written documents of the Bible were not well preserved and that the copying process resulted in many mistakes. Yet Christianity and Judaism have traditionally claimed that the Bible we read and study today represents the Word of God faithfully handed down through the centuries by God’s people. But which claim is true? How can we be sure that the Hebrew and Greek copies scholars use for translation into English are faithful to the original documents? In other words, can we really trust the Bible?
Where did our Bible come from?
Let’s begin with how the Bible came to be preserved and passed down. As far as anyone knows, none of the manuscripts of the Bible that were written by the original authors are still in existence. This fact leads to the legitimate question of whether what we read in the Bible today accurately represents what was written down by Moses or Isaiah or Paul. Because of the lack of original material, scholars must rely on early copies of the original manuscripts. Experts in the discipline of manuscript study can compare the various early copies available in order to sift out the small percentage of variations in the text and synthesize the original content. Over the years, this process has yielded a very high degree of confidence in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
Evidence for the Old Testament
The manuscript evidence for the Old Testament is quite strong. It might seem obvious that most of the books of these Hebrew scriptures were written in the ancient Hebrew language, but a few of the later portions were actually composed in a related language, called Aramaic. These books were probably written over a nearly 1,000-year span between 1400 and 400 B.C. by several dozen different authors, including Moses, Ezra, David, Solomon and others. Until 1947, the best and earliest manuscripts for the Old Testament were known as the Massoretic Texts. The Massoretic Texts were copies of still earlier manuscripts (now lost) made by Jews in eastern Europe between 800 and 1000 A.D. Many critics of the Biblical text argued that the accuracy of these manuscripts, which date from the Middle Ages, was probably very poor due to the more than 1, 200 years between the original documents and these copies.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
But in 1947, through the providence of God, the accuracy of the Massoretic Texts was confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This large collection of miscellaneous writings dating from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. included dozens of much earlier copies of Old Testament books. The scrolls were found carefully preserved in desert caves in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea. What scholars have discovered in studying them is that, apart from a few very minor differences, there had been virtually no change in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures for more than 1,000 years. So, almost overnight, doubts about trustworthiness of the Old Testament suddenly became much less convincing.
In addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is also an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament made around 200 B.C, known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint also confirms the copying accuracy of the Old Testament. So, based upon the evidence of the extreme care with which the Jews copied their scriptures, as well as the insight provided by the Septuagint, we can have confidence that the material of the Hebrew Scriptures is highly accurate.
Evidence for the New Testament
When it comes to the New Testament portion of the Bible, the evidence is even better. The books of the New Testament were probably written in Greek between A.D. 45 and 100. The very earliest copies we have of the original books date from just after A.D. 100. For example, there is a fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, which dates from around A.D. 110. Since the Gospel of John was probably originally written around A.D. 90, that puts the time from original to earliest known copy at about 20 years. An even earlier manuscript portion, known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus, dates from around A.D. 100. Since Paul probably wrote this portion in the years A.D. 55-65, that puts the time lapse from original to copy at less than 50 years. These examples illustrate the very strong evidence for the reliability of the New Testament compared with other works of ancient literature.
All told, there are something like 5,000 early Greek copies of the New Testament in existence today, as well as hundreds more in Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian translations. With the aid of computer software, scholars are able to do intensive comparisons of the available copies in order to “weed out” any copying mistakes and synthesize the original text of the New Testament. More evidence for the trustworthiness of the New Testament comes from the writings of the Christian Church before 400 A.D., called the Patristic writings. These early Christian works quote so extensively from the New Testament that it can be virtually reconstructed from these writings alone. One expert estimated that only one half of one percent (.05 %) of the New Testament is now in any doubt as to its original wording. Most of this small percentage of uncertainty has to do with word order, rather than content. For example, there are a few passages that are unclear as to whether they said Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ – hardly a reason for doubting the reliability of the New Testament. So, just as with the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the New Testament has been shown to be highly accurate.
All of this evidence points to the conclusion that the Bible we use today is extremely reliable and can be trusted. It has lost very little, if anything, in the copying process from the original writings of the authors. While none of this by itself proves the Bible’s inspiration, it does support Christianity’s ancient claim that the Scriptures are the word of God, fully inspired and authoritative for the ages.