How Accurate Is the Bible?

“The Bible is full of contradictions and errors.”

“How can you be sure the Bible is the same now as when it was written, given that it’s been copied and translated so many times?”

These common charges against the Christian Scriptures are often followed with an assertion like, “Historians and scientists have long since proven that the Bible is inaccurate and unreliable.”

But how accurate is that statement? Is the Bible really full of contradictions? Is it outdated, inauthentic, and full of scientific and historical errors as so many assert? In short,

Can we trust the Bible?

Here, we will consider some objections to the accuracy and reliability of the Bible to help you make a more informed decision about whether or not the Bible is trustworthy.

For a more thorough treatment on the Bible’s reliability, see Question 4 (“Is the Bible Reliable?”) in I’m Glad You Asked (by Dr. Boa and Larry Moody).

False Impressions

Consider the following statements:

  • The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.
  • The books of the New Testament were written centuries after the events they describe.
  • “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is in the Bible.
  • According to the Bible, the earth is flat.
  • The earliest New Testament manuscripts go back only to the fourth or fifth centuries AD.
  • The Bible teaches that the earth is the center of the universe.
  • The English Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation (etc.) of the original, and fresh errors were introduced in each stage of the process.

How many of the above statements do you think are true? The answer is none; all of them are false. Yet these false impressions persist in the minds of many, and misinformation like this produces a skeptical attitude toward the Bible.

The fact is that, with few exceptions, many have reached their conclusions about the Bible through second- and third-hand sources rather than through firsthand investigation. For example, it is a rare person who has personally examined the text to see if an alleged contradiction is really there. Someone who asserts that the Bible is full of contradictions should be able to name at least one, if not several; challenging them to do so can be a helpful initial response.

Bible Reliability Definitions

We can break down the question of whether the Bible is reliable into four subcategories or questions:

Authenticity (textual reliability): Is what we have now a fair representation of what was first written?

Accuracy (factual reliability): Is what we have now a fair representation of what actually happened?

Authority (doctrinal reliability): Is what we have now a fair representation of what God wanted to communicate to us?

Accumulation: How do we know the right books were chosen to be in the Bible?1

Three Tests

There are three lines of evidence that support the claim that the biblical documents are reliable:

  1. The bibliographic test;
  2. The internal test; and
  3. The external test.

The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third looks to outside confirmation of the biblical content.

The Bibliographic Test

The first test examines the quantity, quality, and time span (between oldest copy and original writing) of the text. This test examines the question,

When we read the books of the Bible, are we reading what those books originally said?

Quantity of Manuscripts

In the case of the Old Testament, there is a small number of Hebrew manuscripts, because the Jewish scribes ceremonially buried imperfect and worn manuscripts. Many ancient manuscripts were also lost or destroyed during Israel’s turbulent history. Additionally, the Old Testament text was standardized by the Masoretic Jews by the sixth century AD, and all manuscripts that deviated from the Masoretic Text were evidently eliminated. But the existing Hebrew manuscripts are supplemented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (a third-century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Targums (ancient paraphrases of the Old Testament), as well as the Talmud (teachings and commentaries related to the Hebrew Scriptures).

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, about 8,000 Latin manuscripts, and another 1,000 manuscripts in other languages (Syriac and Coptic, among others). In addition to this extraordinary number, there are tens of thousands of citations of New Testament passages by the early church fathers. In contrast, the typical number of existing manuscript copies for any of the works of the Greek and Latin authors, such as Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, or Tacitus, is much smaller.

Comparison of Existing Manuscript Quantities

Homer: ~2,000
Plato: 7
Aristotle: 49
Caesar: 10
Tacitus: 20
New Testament: 6,000+ in Greek (24,000 including translations in other languages)2

Quality of Manuscripts

Because of the great reverence the Jewish scribes held toward the Scriptures, they exercised extreme care in making new copies of the Hebrew Bible. The entire scribal process was specified in meticulous detail to minimize the possibility of even the slightest error. The number of letters, words, and lines were counted, and the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament were determined. If a single mistake was discovered, the entire manuscript would be destroyed.

As a result of this extreme care, the quality of the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible surpasses all other ancient manuscripts. The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provided a significant check on this, because these Hebrew scrolls predate the earliest Masoretic Old Testament manuscripts by about 1,000 years. But in spite of this time span, the number of variant readings between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text is quite small, and most of these are variations in spelling and style.

While the quality of the Old Testament manuscripts is excellent, that of the New Testament is very good—considerably better than the manuscript quality of other ancient documents. Because of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, there are many variant readings, but these variants are actually used by scholars to reconstruct the original readings by determining which variant best explains the others in any given passage. Some of these variant readings crept into the manuscripts because of visual errors in copying or because of auditory errors when a group of scribes copied manuscripts that were read aloud. Other errors resulted from faulty writing, memory, and judgment, and still others from well-meaning scribes who thought they were correcting the text. Nevertheless, only a small number of these differences affect the sense of the passages, and only a fraction of these have any real consequences. Furthermore, no variant readings are significant enough to call into question any of the doctrines of the New Testament. The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure, and the correct readings for the remaining 0.5 percent can often be ascertained with a fair degree of probability by the practice of textual criticism.

Time Span

Apart from some fragments, the earliest Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament is dated at AD 895. This is due to the systematic destruction of worn manuscripts by the Masoretic scribes. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from 200 BC to AD 68 drastically reduced the time span from the writing of the Old Testament books to our earliest copies of them.

The time span of the New Testament manuscripts is exceptional. The manuscripts written on papyrus came from the second and third centuries AD. The John Rylands Fragment (P52) of the Gospel of John is dated at AD 117–138, only a few decades after the Gospel was written. The Bodmer Papyri are dated from AD 175–225, and the Chester Beatty Papyri date from about AD 250. The time span for most of the New Testament is less than 200 years (and some books are within 100 years) from the date of authorship to the date of our earliest manuscripts. This can be sharply contrasted with the average gap of over 1,000 years between the composition and the earliest copy of the writings of other ancient authors.

To summarize the bibliographic test, the Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents.

The Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents.

The Internal Test

The second test of the reliability of the biblical documents addresses the question,

What claims does the Bible make about itself?

This may appear to be circular reasoning. It sounds like we are using the testimony of the Bible to prove that the Bible is true. But we are really examining the truth claims of the various authors of the Bible and allowing them to speak for themselves. (Remember that the Bible is not one book but many books woven together.) This provides significant evidence that must not be ignored.

A number of biblical authors claim that their accounts are primary, not secondary. That is, the bulk of the Bible was written by people who were eyewitnesses of the events they recorded. John wrote in his Gospel, “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe” (John 19:35; see also 21:24). In his first epistle, John wrote, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and held with our hands, concerning the Word of life … what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also …” (1 John 1:1, 3). Peter makes the same point abundantly clear: “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16; also see Acts 2:22; 1 Peter 5:1).

The independent eyewitness accounts in the New Testament of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written by people who were intimately acquainted with Jesus Christ. Their Gospels and epistles reveal their integrity and complete commitment to the truth, and they maintained their testimony even through persecution and martyrdom. All the evidence inside and outside the New Testament runs contrary to the claim made by form criticism that the early church distorted the life and teachings of Christ. Most of the New Testament was written between AD 47 and 70, and all of it was complete before the end of the first century. There simply was not enough time for myths about Christ to be created and propagated. And the multitudes of eyewitnesses who were alive when the New Testament books began to be circulated would have challenged blatant historical fabrications about the life of Christ. The Bible places great stress on accurate historical details, and this is especially obvious in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, Luke’s two-part masterpiece. Here is the prologue to the first of these:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1–4)

The External Test

Because the Scriptures continually refer to historical events, they are verifiable; their accuracy can be checked by external evidence. The chronological details in the prologue to Jeremiah (1:13) and in Luke 3:12 are two illustrations of this. Ezekiel 1:2 is another example; this verse allows us to date Ezekiel’s first vision of God down to the day (July 31, 592 BC).

The historicity of Jesus Christ is well-established by early Roman, Greek, and Jewish sources, and these extrabiblical writings affirm the major details of the New Testament portrait of the Lord. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and James in his Antiquities of the Jews. In this work, Josephus gives many background details—about the Herods, the Sadducees and Pharisees (Jewish religious leaders), the high priests like Annas and Caiaphas, and the Roman emperors, for example—that are mentioned in the four Gospels and the book of Acts.

We find another early secular reference to Jesus in a letter written a little after AD 73 by an imprisoned Syrian named Mara bar Serapion. This letter, written to his son, compares the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Christ. Other first- and second-century writers who mention Christ include:

  • The Roman historians Cornelius Tacitus (Annals) and Suetonius (Life of Claudius, Lives of the Caesars)
  • The Roman governor Pliny the Younger (Epistles)
  • The Greek satirist Lucian (On the Death of Peregrine)
  • The Jewish Talmud also mentions Jesus a number of times

The Old and New Testaments make abundant references to nations, kings, battles, cities, mountains, rivers, buildings, treaties, customs, economics, politics, dates, and the like. Because the historical narratives of the Bible are so specific, many of its details are open to archaeological investigation. While we cannot say that archaeology proves the authority of the Bible, it is fair to say that archaeological evidence has provided external confirmation of hundreds of biblical statements. Higher criticism in the 19th century made many damaging claims that would seem to completely overthrow the integrity of the Bible, but the explosion of archaeological knowledge in the 20th century reversed almost all of these claimsTwitter . Noted archaeologists such as William F. Albright, Nelson Glueck, and G. Ernest Wright developed a great respect for the historical accuracy of the Scriptures as a result of their work.

Out of the multitude of archaeological discoveries related to the Bible, consider the following examples illustrating the remarkable external substantiation of biblical claims. The Nuzi, Mari, and Ebla tablets, along with excavations at Alalakh (1937–1939; 1946–1949), all provide helpful background information that fits well with the Genesis stories of the patriarchal period.

The Nuzi Tablets (1925–1941)

Found shortly before World War II just to the east of Mari and the Euphrates River, the Nuzi excavations uncovered several thousand cuneiform tablets (dating back to 1500 BC) that confirm many customs of the day that are mentioned in the Bible, including:

  • The servant heir custom (i.e., having your eldest servant inherit your wealth if you were childless), a practice mentioned by Abraham in reference to Eliezer in Genesis 15:2.
  • The birthright sales custom, mentioned with Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:31).
  • The custom of household idols (Genesis 31:19 tells the account of Rachel having stolen these from her father, Laban).

The Mari Tablets (1933)

Discovered in 1933, the Mari tablets are diplomatic correspondences and governmental records involving King Zimri-Lim (a contemporary of Babylon’s Hammurabi).To date, some 20,000 clay tablets have been found dating back to around 1800 BC. These letters, along with the Nuzi tablets, illustrate the patriarchal customs in great detail. They also mention the city of Nahor, which apparently is named after the Nahor identified in Genesis 11:24, and make reference to the “Habiru” people (most likely an Akkadian reference to the Hebrews—an allusion to them as a nomadic people).

The Ebla Tablets (1964–1970s)

Discovered in northern Syria, these tablets affirm the antiquity and accuracy of the book of Genesis. Their excavation began in 1964 by two professors from the University of Rome, Drs. Paolo Matthiae and Giovanni Pettinato (an archaeologist and epigrapher, respectively). Since 1974, 17,000 tablets have been unearthed from the Ebla kingdom era and have made valuable contributions to biblical criticism.3

Other External Evidence for the Old Testament

Some scholars once claimed that the Mosaic law could not have been written by Moses, because writing was largely unknown at that time, and because the law code of the Pentateuch was too sophisticated for that period. But the codified Laws of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 BC), the Lipit-Ishtar code (ca. 1860 BC), the Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1950 BC), and the even earlier Ur-Nammu code have refuted these claims. Archaeology provides helpful, external evidence of numerous other biblical details from the Old Testament as well, from Genesis to Ezra to Daniel.

New Testament Evidence

The New Testament has also received abundant support from archaeology, and many critical attacks have been reversed. Most of the geographical details associated with the life of Jesus in the Gospels have been substantiated. These include places such as the Pool of Siloamthe Pool of Bethesda, Jacob’s Well, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Chorazin, the residence of Pilate in Jerusalem, and “The Pavement” in John 19:13.

In the past, critics tried to discredit Luke, accusing him of being an inaccurate historian; however, the books of Luke and Acts (both replete with references to cities, Roman provinces, and political figures) have now been substantiated by external evidence. Critics once scoffed at his reference to Lysanius as the “tetrarch of Abilene” (Luke 3:1), but archaeologists have since found two Greek inscriptions proving that Lysanius was indeed the tetrarch of Abilene in AD 14–29. Luke’s use of technical terminology, like proconsul, procurator, Asiarch, praetor, and politarch, has been challenged in the past, but mounting evidence has vindicated his accuracy.

Conclusion

The Old and New Testaments pass the bibliographic, internal, and external tests like no other ancient books. Most professional archaeologists and historians acknowledge the historicity of the Bible, and yet many theologians still embrace pre-archaeological critical theories about the Bible. The evidence strongly supports the accuracy of the Bible in relation to history and culture, but in many cases it has been overlooked or rejected because of philosophical presuppositions that run contrary to the Scriptures. This leads to a double standard: critics approach secular literature with one standard but wrongly use a different standard when they examine the Bible. Those who discard the Bible as historically untrustworthy must realize that the same standard would force them to eliminate almost all ancient literature.

Of course, there are many other issues surrounding the accuracy and authority of the Bible that we have not addressed here. For further reading, I recommend the following:

  • Question 4 (“Is the Bible Reliable?”) of my book (coauthored with Larry Moody) I’m Glad You Asked (also includes a longer supplemental reading list)
  • Chapters 9–12 of my book (coauthored with Robert M. Bowman Jr.) 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists
  • F. F. Bruce’s classic The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
  • Walter C. Kaiser Jr.’s The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?
  • Holman’s The Apologetics Study Bible (version for students available)

Image: The Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll, in Hebrew, from Wikimedia Commons

Footnotes

  1. Boa and Moody, I’m Glad You Asked (Ellicott City, MD: Search Ministries, 1982, rev. 2013), 73.
  2. Boa and Moody, I’m Glad You Asked, 79.
  3. Contender Ministries, http://www.contenderministries.org/biblestudy/archeology.php

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