This week we look at the reliability of the Bible. I received an e-mail recently that read, "With so many controversies in the Bible, it's hard to believe anything it says." There are at least two issues to deal with when it comes to biblical reliability: (1) Do we have what the original authors wrote?; and (2) How reliable are the "facts"?
One of the concerns many people have, when it comes to the Bible, is that we don't possess a single scrawl, let alone a whole book, from any of the original authors of the Bible. Although there are 66 widely accepted books included in the Bible, the earliest copy of any of those books is at best dated 130 CE. Given that some of the Old Testament writings are attributed to authors who lived at least 1,100 years earlier, it seems only logical to show some concern as to the content of the book. "Certainly," we may reason, "there must have been significant tampering with the works over such a long period of time." And given that there is a great deal of interest by some to discredit the Bible, as well as the religious faiths that cling to the book, it seems appropriate to closely examine the manuscripts we possess.
Precisely because the Bible is the foundation of at least two world faiths (Jew and Christian), it has been copied and recopied over the millennia. In fact, scholars have uncovered over 5,000 Greek copies of portions of the Bible, 10,000 Latin copies, and over 9,300 other ancient language copies. These manuscripts date back as early as 130 CE. However, some might suggest that since the last book in the Bible was written by 90 CE, and some books were written over 1,000 years earlier, how can we be sure of the Bible's reliability?
When we compare the sheer number of copies we have of the biblical manuscripts to other ancient works of literature, we can see the value of all those copies. The Bible has well over 20,000 manuscript portions attesting to its content. Other ancient Greek and Roman works that are well accepted and attested by copies, have significantly fewer copies. For instance, Herodotus, (the Greek "Father of History") was written in about 488-428 BCE. The earliest copy we have is dated about 900 CE (a difference of over 1,300 years), and we only have eight copies. Livy's Roman History was penned between 59 BCE and 17 AD. The earliest manuscript we have for it is dated 900 and we have but 20 manuscript copies. Of these works, and many others, classical scholars have little doubt as to their authenticity. And so, because of the many manuscripts we have of the Bible, scholars are even more sure that what we have is quite authentic to the author's original writings.
But what about the facts? Aren't there lots of contradictions and isn't the Bible scientifically shortsighted and wrong?
The fact is, the many books of the Bible were written for a variety of reasons and from a variety of viewpoints. Much of the Torah was written as etiology (a story offered as an explanation to a question-like where did all the languages come from - Genesis 11, and why are animals afraid of us - Genesis 9). The Psalms are a collection of hymns and poems for worship in the Temple. The prophets wrote sermons, and Paul wrote letters. All these books were written for different reasons and with a different style. Indeed, there are only a few books that were written to chronicle the history of anything-for instance the books of the Kings and Chronicles. Even the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written with specific goals in mind, and only Luke says he is writing to set the record straight-the others wrote with a specific goal in mind, that is, to convince their audience of the character and person of Jesus.
With this in mind, we can see that the Bible wasn't written to set out the history or the science of the world. Indeed, according to Hebrew cosmology, the earth is a disk floating on a sea of chaotic waters and held up by pillars, a cosmology we know to be mythological. But the writers weren't trying to record scientific facts, they were sharing faith stories about God and God's relationship with us. The stories, psalms, letters, and histories of the Bible have one thing in common: they were all written to show their readers how to live a more God-centered life of love and peace. Indeed, some of the stories are about how not to love one another and how not to love God.
So long as we try to discount the Bible as filled with controversy and contradictions, we will miss the great truths from scripture. Paul's second letter to Timothy (3.16) reminds us that all scripture was inspired by God-not dictated, not written by, but inspired by God. And I'd add it was inspired by God so that we could be inspired to be more godly.