Olivia from Sacramento messaged this to my Instagram account: How do we know we can trust the bible, and what is it with all the translations anyway? Isn't that just people making up their own versions of the Bible?
Great questions. Today, I will focus on your first question and answer your second question in next week's blog.
Can you trust the bible?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer below.
To best answer this question, I need to raise the real issue behind your question: Can biblical manuscripts be trusted? By biblical manuscripts, I am referring to the original texts from which we get our modern-day bible.
Our scriptures begin in a time frame that was primarily an oral culture. In other words, the people were generally illiterate. Since most individuals could not read or write, they used stories, songs, and speeches to communicate important information. Mnemonics (aids for improving memory) were frequently used to aid memorization. It was common practice among all people groups, not just the Israelites.
Just because early societies were based on oral tradition does not make history less reliable or inferior. People took the time and effort to memorize things to preserve their histories accurately for the following generations. For most people in the U.S. today, it is hard to grasp societies built on oral tradition because it can be challenging to see beyond today's culture and not impose it on the past. However, if we consider oral traditions, they do make sense. They did not have magazines, t.v., radio, or books. So, when important events happened, people would remember them and pass them along as it was their primary means of communication.
Even though it was an oral culture, some people could read and write. And even though there was no such thing as a printing press or books like we have today, they did have scrolls of leather and plant leaves called papyrus. These ancient forms of writing were costly, so they would only write down the most important stories.
Dr. Craig Bloomberg explains: “The only purpose for which someone would write something down in the ancient world was because they thought there were some lessons to be learned from the characters described.” And this is precisely what people were thinking about when we came to what is in the Old and New Testaments.
For example, the first New Testament book written was Galatians, written in 49 A.D., not even 30 years after Jesus had died and been resurrected. And, if we look beyond Galatians to the Gospels, Dr. Bloomberg adds: “The standard scholarly dating, even in very liberal circles, is Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, John in the 90s. But listen, that’s still within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around... Arrian and Plutarch wrote the earliest biographies of Alexander the Great more than 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., yet historians consider them to be generally trustworthy.”
In other words, it was 400 years after Alexander’s death that his biography was written, which is considered trustworthy -- even though no one was alive who had been there and personally known Alexander the Great. In comparison, the entire New Testament was written between 30-60 years after Jesus’ death. How much more reliable then should the New Testament accounts of history be than our belief in the life of Alexander the Great?
If we look at the other world religions, the case for the Christian scriptures is made even more robust.
- The Zoroastrian scriptures were written about 1300 years after the actual event.
- The scriptures of Buddha, who lived in the 6th century B.C., were not put into writing until 600
- Muhammad died in 632 A.D.. However, his biography was not written until 135 years after his
death, well beyond the lifespan of anyone who knew him personally.
- The Book of Mormon was not written until the 1900s. No chance of having any eyewitnesses with
Until the 1940s, the earliest biblical manuscripts (Old and New Testament) we could find were copies from about 895 A.D. (We are not talking about secular or non-church writings referring to events or people that we see in the Bible. These go much older.) This was unsurprising because the old leather or paper manuscripts would both fade out, dry rot, or be burned once they were copied. So, for centuries, scholars debated whether the manuscripts they had were genuinely reliable.
However, in 1947, Bedouin shepherds working in the Judean Desert entered a cave and found jars filled with ancient scrolls. This discovery began a search that lasted almost a decade and eventually produced thousands of scroll fragments from eleven caves. To make a long story short, the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed thousands of biblical scroll fragments from the Old and New Testaments dating from 250 B.C. up to 68 A.D. These Dead Sea Scrolls were almost 1000 years older than the oldest biblical manuscripts in human possession.
What they found in those thousands of Dead Sea Scrolls was that even though there were some minor variants, those scrolls were virtually identical to the manuscripts we already had in our possession that were written 1000 years later.
When you add it all up, today, there are over 5664 Greek manuscripts, 8,000-10,000 Latin manuscripts, and over 8000 Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian manuscripts, for a total of over 24,000 ancient manuscripts of our Bible that are in existence today… that we can say reliably represent what was written by the original authors of our Bible. In essence, there is simply no comparison in the amount of manuscript evidence between the bible and any other book from the ancient world.
So, what will we do with all of that, and where is the application? Well, the point is, you can trust your bible. Granted, we have to find reliable ways to interpret the Bible, but, concerning the manuscripts themselves, the bible is more trustworthy than any other ancient document that exists today. Period.
My Last Point: A Jury
My husband preached on this question years ago and discussed what you are about to read. If ever you are tempted to say, I do not need to read the Bible because no one knows what is from God and what is not...well, I offer you the illustration of the jury.
Imagine that you are a jury member trying to figure out whether the defendant committed murder. Say, you have found 66 witnesses who all say they witnessed the murder, and they are willing to testify.
All 66 witnesses take the stand, and you interview 11 witnesses daily for six days, but after just a few witnesses, something odd is happening. Each witness gives the exact word-for-word story that the other 65 witnesses offer. They did not see the murder from different perspectives. They do not tell the story through any different lenses. For six days, all 66 witnesses say the same thing with no variation, ending with, “The defendant is a murderer.” Now, if 66 people all said the same thing on the witness stand, would you believe them?
Let us say you find 66 more witnesses. Yet this time, when you call them to the stand, every story is different. Details are different. Some of them even contradict one another. Some people disagree about when everything happened. Some people contradict each other on the clothes of the victim. And some people even contradict others on the order of events. But, after documenting all of their stories, one theme is consistent even with all their differences. The person on trial does not fit the general description of the murderer.
Now if it were you, whose testimony would you believe? The testimony of the 66 witnesses who all had the exact same story. Or the testimony of the 66 witnesses who had very different stories, but the point to all their stories was the same?
Now be sure to tune in here; over the last 2000 years, the church has had numerous opportunities to edit and doctor the stories in the bible to make them perfectly consistent with one another. People have so many arguments about what the scriptures say precisely because the scriptures are not always perfectly clear or consistent.
Since the church has not edited out the inconsistencies, what reasons might we come up with for their lack of action? The answer is that those inconsistencies add to the validity of the points, principles, and concepts underlying the text itself. Believe it or not, I like that there are things, issues, and truths concerning the scripture I do not perfectly understand.
That tells me if it is true that God’s ways are higher than mine and God’s thoughts are higher than mine, then God definitely is involved in this book. Now, it is simply a matter of my personal journey and walking with other believers to figure out what God wants me to know.
Or, maybe Peterson worded it best in The Message when he stated: “There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful in one way or another—showing us the truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, and training us to live God’s way. Through the Word, we are put together and shaped up for the good things in life that God has in mind.”
My prayer for you and all who struggle with the truth of the Bible is, "Know that God is not afraid of your questions. Keep bringing them to God. Trust in a God who loves all of us is present in our lives and who inspired the scripture we have today. May you trust in the bible's reliability, and may the reading of God's word bless and transform your life." Amen.
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