I have asked several Christians how we know The Bible is a reliable source and they said “because God wouldn’t let anything go in it that wasn’t his word. Doesn’t this contradict the whole free will deal? The Bible was written by humans hearing the word of God, but they are not reliable interpreters for the very reason that they have free will. As Salman Rushdie points out in The Satanic Verses, a man could easily mistake a word here or there, or worse, could deliberately change it to test God. So, how can we trust The Bible and believe in free will?
I don’t reckon that the Bible is a reliable source just by theorising that God would have made it reliable – he would, wouldn’t he – because he wanted to communicate in a perfect way with humans.
This argument is good as far as it goes, but it involves the prerequisite of a believing heart. The situation is that if you are already familiar with God’s voice in your heart, and his hand on your life, it is no extra work to understand that he put his word there to communicate his nature to you, and what would be the point if he allowed it to be unreliable.
The problem with this is that a large section of the population has the attitude that God needs to prove himself, and when they observe people who are already committed believing in something they are already committed to believe, it is deeply unconvincing.
So, are there other reasons to consider the Bible trustworthy?
My answer is most certainly yes.
So, how have I come to that conclusion?
- By looking at the documents themselves and searching for textual discrepancies, either within one copy of a document, or between different copies of the same document.
- By studying their mode of transmission, and the care which has been taken to preserve the integrity of the text.
- By looking at the contents of the documents and applying the same standards of evidence which we would use for any document to judge whether the writers were likely to be reliable.
- By comparing information found in one part of the Bible with that in another.
I can’t go through my 40 years as a Bible student and relate all the observations of this nature that I’ve made, but here are some examples based on the categories above.
- By comparing different versions of documents, it is possible to deduce that the level of textual integrity of bible documents is so remarkable that there is no comparable example of transmission in all literature.
For example, you can compare the modern Hebrew text, from which your Old Testament is directly translated, with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The former comes from the Masoretic text, the earliest extant documents of which date from around 800 AD.
The copies of the Masoretic text are themselves remarkable, given that a large number of biblical documents were lost in Roman destruction of the Temple, so the text we have must have been copied by the dispersed Jewish communities all over the world from whatever they had with them. The point being that there is very little difference, and none on any significant point of faith, between these documents. Even the spelling is very nearly consistent in all documents, which is astonishing, given that documents in English only a few hundred years old show a huge variety of different spellings. The development of dictionaries has only (relatively) recently resulted in a move towards orthography in English.
As if that weren’t enough, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 shook the world. Here were copies of Old Testament documents which had been stored away between 200 BC and the time of Jesus. No way had they had any influence on the Masoretic text. So the fact that, again, there are no significant (faith-affecting) differences between these texts, up to one thousand years apart, is unparalleled in all literature.
Similar results are found when the Masoretic text is compared with the Greek text of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, translated between 200 and 100 BC.
What about the New Testament? A similar parallel occurs with the Greek New Testament and Slavic versions of the New Testament.
Sometime after 200 AD the NT was translated into Syriac, found mainly in Babylonia.
Around 400AD Slavic and Coptic translations were made.
It is important to note that New Testament copying standards varied considerably more than the Old Testament, yet comparison of all these documents results in no significant changes to any reading of the New Testament.
- The care Scribes take to preserve Old Testament textual integrity is unparalleled. There is no end to the letter counting, the word counting, and checking which Scribes undertake.
- If you look – for example – at the book of Acts, we can see Luke giving eye-witness testimony of his experiences, furnishing accurate historical details, fitting with known historical events.
This is the type of reliability which our courts currently use to determine legally admissible truth.
Luke also wrote the Gospel of Luke. If he was a reliable reporter in Acts, it is appropriate to assume that he would have been as reliable in his Gospel.
- Comparing information found in one part of the Bible with that in another results in the most remarkable evidence of the reliability of the Bible. It is uncontested that the 66 books were written by many authors over a huge time period. So finding that – for example – the theology is consistent between books of widely separated authorship is deeply convincing.
Aha!, some will say, but everybody knows there are plenty of discrepancies in the Bible.
Oh yes? I have a book called “Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible”. The author searched high and low to find all the discrepancies which people felt existed. He then wrote a book dealing with each one in order, showing that in every single case, the Bible really is consistent.
Most of the allegations of discrepancy result from ignorance of the issues being dealt with. This often comes from an apparent paradox which has not been resolved by the critic. I call this “Phil lives in Rugby”. It goes like this:
Phil lives in Rugby.
Phil lives in Warwickshire.
Now if I am from Mars and I read those statements, I might reasonably conclude there is a discrepancy, a paradox. How could I live in two places?
If you wanted to help, you could show the Martian your map. He would learn that Rugby is a town IN Warwickshire. So somebody can be in both at the same time. He has learned more, and then his difficulty has disappeared.
What is the lesson? If a casual glance reveals an apparent paradox, deeper enquiry may reveal the resolution of the paradox. The less you know, the more you see inconsistencies. The more you know, the more you understand that there is no inconsistency.
So, let’s deal with the free will of the authors. It is noteworthy that when different authors write truthfully on the same subject, the style they use may well be very different, being influenced by their own personality, but that does not necessarily prevent them truthfully portraying the same event in a way which others can trust.
Christians would say, “God works in PARTNERSHIP with human beings, coordinating his inspiration with their nature and personality in order to produce a document which both reflects the author’s person, and still is trustworthy in what it says about God and his relationship with us.
One final word. Christians don’t say they believe God inspired the Bible they have in their hand or on their shelf. What they say is that they believe God inspired Scripture “as originally given”.
This places the onus on translators to get it right, and there are a few examples where translators have allowed their preconceptions to influence their translation. This is unforgivable, but fortunately no themes are affected which are the basis of our faith, and other translations usually step into the gap to help. The longer we go on, the more accurate our translations are, as these issues are recognised and corrected.