Is the Bible Reliable?

by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 1998 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Doubts about the Bible range from how it is translated, what was meant by the writers, how the text was preserved, how books were included or excluded, and its truthfulness. Each of these topics is complex, but there is ample evidence to affirm the Bible's complete reliability.

Bible Translations

Reputable Bible translations[1] are produced by careful scholarship in textual criticism, linguistics, translation, grammar, vocabulary, style, and history. Various texts of the original language Testaments (Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament) are published and generally available, along with documented accounts of how the texts were derived from existing copies over time.

Linguistic scholars work together, ensuring that the original languages are understood and translated accurately into the receptor language. Grammarians and specialists in vocabulary, style, and history are consulted as well.

Some translations, such as the New American Standard, favor "formal equivalence," preserving much of the original language structure and vocabulary equivalence. Sometimes readers have difficulty understanding a culturally, linguistically, or historically unique statement with no close English parallel. Other translations, such as the New International Version, combine formal equivalence with "dynamic equivalence" for culturally or historically obscure texts. Paul talks of the "sinful flesh" in a cultural and religious context that associates "flesh" with sacrifices, but in our culture is more readily understood as "sin nature" (Romans 7:18 NIV).

Whether you prefer the literary beauty of the New King James, the complexities of the New American Standard, the concise clarity of the New International, or some other reputable translation, the text of the Bible we have today is essentially what was written.[2]

How We Got Our Bible

The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books composed under inspiration of the Holy Spirit by many authors over almost 1500 years throughout the Middle East. Authors include adopted Egyptian nobility (Moses), a shepherd (David), a Babylonian official (Daniel), a tax collector (Matthew), a doctor (Luke), a philosopher/rabbi (Paul), and a fisherman (Peter). The Bible includes poetry, history, government records, prophecy, dialogue, parables, sermons, letters, and religious instructions. The Bible is written in three languages, Hebrew (Old Testament), Aramaic (part of Daniel), and Greek (New Testament). Despite this diversity, the Bible has been remarkably preserved, contains no contradictions, and is widely supported by history, archaeology, science, and philosophy.

As the books of the Bible were composed, they were recognized by God's people (first the Jews regarding the Old Testament, then the Christians, who also recognized the New Testament books) as God's Word. The books were tested according to the following principles:[3]

  1. The book must be written by a person of God (e.g., a prophet, an apostle, a trusted associate of an apostle, etc.).
  2. The writer and writings must be confirmed by facts and the acts of God (e.g., Moses said a prophet whose prophecy did not come true was a false prophet -- Deuteronomy 18:18-21, etc.).
  3. The book must come with the power of God. Application produces godly transformation in believers' lives (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:17, etc.).
  4. The book must be accepted by the people of God initially (see Peter call Paul's words "scripture" in 2 Peter 3:15-16) and over time (before the second half of the second century all of the main churches in the Roman empire accepted at least the four gospels, the Acts of the apostles, and Paul's writings as scripture[4]).

At the beginning of the fourth century the Christian churches generally agreed on which books composed the Bible and which books were excluded. This was the earliest time such a question had general significance. Emperor Diocletian Galerius decreed that Christians were to be persecuted and their scriptures burned. It was a matter of life and death to determine which books one would risk martyrdom for. By the end of the fourth century the Bible as we know it was formally recognized by all Christian churches.[5] It is important to note that the church recognized the scriptures, it did not determine or make up scriptures.

For many centuries the texts of the Old and New Testament books were copied by hand on papyrus, parchment, or vellum in scrolls or in codexes (books). Professional copyists, or scribes, were meticulous, skilled workers. Convinced they were copying God's Word, they could not alter it in any way. The remarkable preservation of the original texts is traced by comparing our earliest copies of books or portions of books with those of later centuries. Our oldest copies of Old Testament writings are from before the time of Christ, and our oldest copies of New Testament writings may date to before A.D. 70, contemporary with their composition. In addition, we have citations by other authors, collections of scriptures used in church services, and versions in other languages.

Critics point to the absence of the originals to discount the Bible, but biblical scholars like F. F. Bruce note, "there is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament." Slight variations among copies do not obscure the original, Bruce continues, "the wealth of attestation is such that the true reading is almost bound to be preserved by at least one of the thousands of witnesses."6 And although the copies of the Old Testament are fewer, their unique copying standards "give us ground for greater confidence than might be supposed," confirming "that no serious changes were introduced into the text of the Old Testament" through the centuries.[7]

Does the Bible Tell the Truth?

Most disputes about the truthfulness of the Bible can be grouped into three categories: (1) misunderstandings; (2) ignorance of the facts; (3) dislike of its teachings.

One example of an interpretive Bible problem is the common misunderstanding that "God of the Old Testament" is harshly judgmental while "Jesus of the New Testament" is lovingly forgiving. However, the God of the Bible is consistent from Genesis to Revelation in bringing judgment against unrepentant sin and forgiveness to those who repent.

Ezekiel 18 explains, "Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it. . . . But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. . . . I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. . . . I take no pleasure in the death of anyone . . . Repent and live!" (vv. 25-32).

Jesus makes the same kind of declaration in Matthew 23, pronouncing judgment against the Pharisees, calling them "blind fools," "hypocrites," "sons of hell," "full of hypocrisy and wickedness," "condemned to hell." But his loving desire for them to repent is evident as well: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (v. 37).

Interpretive (called hermeneutic in literary terms) problems range from misunderstanding the type of literature in a passage (confusing poetry with historical narrative, for example),through vocabulary, to confusing time and circumstance differences between two events. A good book for further information is Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva's An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: A Search for Meaning.[8]

Ignorance of the facts concerning the trustworthiness of the Bible can be embarrassing for critics. For example, for many years doubters disputed the New Testament accounts concerning Pontius Pilate. No hard artifact evidence existed confirming his existence and position, and later extra-biblical historical mention of him and his position was suspected as having been improperly assumed from the Christian scriptures and later creeds. Then, in 1961, archaeologists unearthed an early first century theater inscription at Caesarea Maritima in Israel, dedicated from "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea," to "Tiberius Caesar."[9] What the Christians had preserved in scripture and creed had achieved hard artifact verification nearly 2,000 years later.

Finally, some say they distrust the Bible when they really mean they don't like or agree with it. However, the Bible has more supporting its truthfulness than does any critic. The historical and textual evidence of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, for example, would compel anyone who did not already discount the existence of God to accept its reality. When Christ endorses the Bible,[10] the wise man believes the Bible, even if he dislikes it. After the French Revolution, political factions attempted unsuccessfully to construct an alternative to Christianity. One individual complained to the prominent politician Talleyrand, who had been a bishop before he abandoned his faith. Talleyrand's response is telling: "Surely, it cannot be so difficult as you think. . . . The matter is simple: you have only yourself to get crucified, or anyhow put to death, and then at your own time rise from the dead, and you will have no difficulty."[11]

  1. Translations not meeting these standards are usually produced by those who deny essential Christian doctrine and modify the Bible accordingly, ignoring proven standards of language, grammar, vocabulary, style, and translation.
  2. A good resource on this topic is Alan S. Duthie's How to Choose Your Bible Wisely. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1995.
  3. Adapted from Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix's A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986 (revised edition), pp. 223-234.
  4. See Milton Fisher's "The Canon of the New Testament" in Philip Wesley Comfort, ed. The Origin of the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, pp. 69-72.
  5. See Earle E. Cairns. Christianity through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981 (revised edition), pp. 93, 118-119.
  6. F. F. Bruce. The Books and the Parchments. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984 revised edition, pp. 168-169.
  7. Bruce, The Books, pp. 112-113.
  8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
  9. John McRay. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991, pp. 203-204.
  10. Luke 24:25-27; John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15.
  11. Quoted in Wilbur M. Smith. Therefore Stand. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1945, pp. 586-587.

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The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26