Over the last four posts, we’ve been discussing the question, “Can I take the Bible seriously?” In order to come to a conclusion, we’ve been discussing five questions, the final one having to do with how to evaluate an ancient book. In the last post, we discussed the authenticity of the Bible. In this post, we’ll examine the reliability of the Bible. Specifically, we’ll answer the question, “is the Bible just a fairytale?” After all, the claims of the New Testament seem too good to be true, extravagant, etc. Can the claims of the New Testament be trusted? By using the Historical Research Method, we’ll seek to discover if the New Testament is a reliable ancient manuscript.
There are three “checks” we’ll use to discern the reliability of the New Testament: internal consistency, external consistency, and other supportive evidences.
Check 1: Internal consistency
There are three things to look for to check the internal consistency of an ancient manuscript. First, check to see if the author of a particular book in the Bible is consistent with himself. Make sure that he does not contradict himself within the same book or in another book that he has written, i.e., make sure John does not contradict what he writes in John with what he writes in Revelation.
Second, check to see if the various eyewitnesses are consistent with each other, making sure that one biblical book does not contradict another. In claiming that two books contradict each other, one is asserting that there is no possible/logical way for the two books to make sense together. The writings of the apostle Paul are consistent with the writings of the apostle Peter, in other words.
Third, determine the amount and quality of claims an event has. As far as the NT goes, the more witnesses there are to an event, the more credible it is. For instance, the gospels provide four accounts to the life and events of Jesus’ life. Such evidence bolsters the case for Christ. In addition to these four accounts, books such as Acts, Paul’s letters, and Hebrews through Revelation also testify of Jesus. Furthermore, this testimony is internally consistent.
In sum, the writings of the New Testament do not show any signs of fabrication or legendary development. They are consistent and contain a coherent message.
Check 2: External consistency
In order to test for external consistency, we’ll look at five components.
First, there are ancient historians who testify to Jesus’ life and the events of the New Testament. When we crack open the history books, do we find historians that refer to biblical characters? Yes! Josephus, who was not a Christian, references to the deaths of John the Baptist and James, the relative of Jesus. Even more, Josephus writes about Jesus:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders” (from “Testimonium” by Agapius, as found in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Scott, p. 394).
Second, there are church authorities who testify to the life of Jesus. These early church founders provide external evidence of Jesus’ life when they write about biblical events in their works. For example, certain church fathers make reference to the fact that they actually knew a disciple of Jesus (Polycarp knew John).
Third, archaeology confirms the biblical record, over and over again. For instance, modern archaeology has excavated the house of Peter, the synagogue build by the centurion in Luke 7, and a first century church in Capernaum. Further, in 1992, the burial grounds of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest mentioned in John, and his family were found buried in Jerusalem.
Fourth, the strategy for using eyewitnesses is consistent with other ancient writings. Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses describes how history was written in ancient times. Unlike today, history in New Testament times was written from eyewitness accounts. Today, we’re comfortable relying on second, third, and fourth hand accounts. But ancient people did not write history this way. They did their research by utilizing first (and maybe second) hand witnesses. You had to have seen the event in order to be a reliable witness. Then, when the historian was recording the event, he would mention the name of a witness as a way of supporting his claim. The names mentioned in Scripture, such as Rufus, Simon, and Tabitha, were the names of real first hand witnesses, who could be called up on at any time to verify the claims. That’s why their names were mentioned by the New Testament writers. Their names were like modern day “footnotes.” If anyone reading one of the New Testament books questioned the claims, then one of the “footnotes” could be personally consulted. That was the purpose of mentioning the names of the eyewitnesses. In addition, when it comes to the New Testament, females witnesses were used when supporting the claims of the resurrection. Since female testimony held no authority in a court of law, it is highly unlikely that the gospel writers “made up” their stories. Were they wanting to convince their readers that the resurrection were true, then they would have “made up” male witnesses, whose testimony was considered credible in ancient times. The only reason that female witnesses were used, therefore, is because that’s exactly the way it happened: Jesus rose from the dead and some females were the first witnesses of it. That is not the mark of a legend or a myth, but of real history.
Fifth, the New Testament books do not contain the marks of typical ancient fiction (legends or myths), and this is a sure indication that they are not works of fiction. Many scholars have noted the vast difference between the New Testament accounts and the accounts of ancient fiction. Ancient fiction did not use detail, as the New Testament does. In the New Testament, we’re told many details within the writing. For instance, we learn in John 21 that 153 fish were caught. We learn specific hours of the day when event happened. We learn locations and professions, etc. Works of legend or myth do not provide this kind of detail—nowhere in ancient fiction do you find the kind of detail that is given in the New Testament. This can only mean that the New Testament is not a work of fiction or legend, but of truth. Again, the New Testament does not have the marks of a legend or myth, which develops centuries after the lives of the people concerned, in order to fool the ignorant reader. The New Testament is not written to fool anyone, but through its use of eyewitnesses and historical, geographical, and social detail, seeks to bolster the reader’s confidence in the reliability of the claims and the events behind them. The New Testament is completely vulnerable and honest, often including details that make its heroes (Jesus and the disciples) look like weaklings or fools, rather than compromise the truth. This can only be because the New Testament writers were not interested in creating a legend, but communicating the truth. An honest reading of the New Testament will convince you of this. It has nothing to hide.
Check 3: Other supportive evidence
In our final check, we’ll look at other supportive evidences: the uniqueness of Scripture, the affect that Scripture has on people’s lives, and the predictive power of Scripture. Each of these evidences further builds the reliability of the Bible (along with the other checks, of course).
First, the uniqueness of Scripture is another evidence of its reliability. Even though there are many biblical authors over thousands of years, the testimony of the Bible remains uniform: how to get sinners into a relationship with a Holy God.
Second, the affect that Scripture has on people’s lives is quite astounding. The disciples and many Christians after them have been transformed by the Bible. Christians have had an unwavering witness of God’s word, even to death.
Third, the predictive power of the Bible is another evidence. Just consider the Messianic prophecies, alone. There are about 300 Old Testament predictions that were literally fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. These OT writings point to Jesus, the great Treasure of the Bible.
- Born of a woman (Gen 3:15; Gal 4:4)
- Born of a virgin (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:18-25)
- Descendant of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 1:1)
- From the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10; Lk 2:23, 33)
- Of the house of David (2 Sam 7:12; Matt 1:1)
- Born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:1)
- Time of his appearance and death (Dan 9:24-27; Lk 19:44)
- Betrayal price (Zech 11:12-13; Matt 26:15)
- Isa 52:13-53:12 (written 700 years before Jesus’ birth) speaks of the suffering servant, who would be sinless, a substitute, scourged, pierced through, placed in a rich man’s grave, lifted up after death, and exalted.
Other passages in the Bible predict these things about the Messiah:
- Abandoned by his disciples
- Silent before his accusers
- Beaten and spat upon
- Hands and feet pierced
- Crucified with transgressors
- Lots cast for his garments
- Cry from the cross
- No bones broken
- Pierced in his side
- Ascension into heaven
- Seated at the right hand of God
Other remarkable OT prophecies include details about the overthrow of Nineveh, Babylon, Ammon and Moab, Philistia, Edom, Memphis and Thebes, and Palestine. It is safe to say that no other book ever written has this kind of prophetic power.
Is It For Me?
This brings us to our final question of the Historical Research Method—a personal one. You might not think that it’s appropriate to introduce a personal question within a scientific framework. But for our purposes, I believe it is. The nature of the Bible demands this question. Any piece of literature seeks to communicate and the Bible is no different. However, the Bible is different in that it claims to communicate the very words of God. As I’ve written before, the Bible is the word of God in the words of humans. God wants to say something to us: he loves us and has forgiven us.
Jesus believed the biblical texts to be the truth (John 17:17, “Your word is truth.”). Paul claims that all scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As we have discovered through the Historical Research Method, the case for the truthfulness of the Bible has become strong. The Bible is a book to be trusted. We are to build our lives on it, rather than on the foundations that will crumble like sand (Matthew 7:24-27). If this Bible is true and accurate, then we must consider what it has to say. We would be foolish to ignore it.
The Bible claims that all humans have sinned and cannot be in a relationship with a perfect God by their own efforts. The Bible claims that Jesus lived a perfect life, died unfairly for us sinners, and rose from the grave triumphantly. He bore the punishment for our wrongs. The Bible claims that if we believe in him, abandoning our lives to the cause of Christ and to his eternal glory, then we will be raised with Christ at the last day. The Bible also warns those who do not give their lives to him of the judgment that is theirs. Both blessing and warning come from the same book, and this book is true.
Is this book for you? Perhaps your heart already knows the answer. Start with the resurrection of Jesus and discover the compelling claims of Scripture. Scripture makes plain what our consciences remind us of every day: there is no hope within this world (alone) and we need a Savior. The Bible contains the solution that we have been longing to find.
© Samuel Kee, 2013