The Best Book on Earth
Do you consider the Bible to be a historical book; a documentation of events that actually took place? This is a vital question, especially when you consider the life and death of Jesus Christ. Many see the Bible as a quaint collection of moral fables or fantasy (or even a conspiracy). Some people maintain that, as we do not have the original documents, the first writings have been polluted by word of mouth transmissions. They would say that the Bible as we know it is an interesting collection of myths. So what is the historical reliability of the Bible?
All historical documents are subject to the principles of historiography. This involves three tests. The bibliographical test, the internal evidence test and the external evidence test.
The bibliographical test is the careful study of all ancient copies still in existence. More specifically, the number of copies available, the quality of those copies and the age of the copies with respect to the age of the original manuscript. The more copies consistent with one another and the shorter the time gap between the original and the oldest existing copy, the more reliable the document.
The New Testament stands up remarkably to the bibliographical test. There are 5300 very nearly original (125 A.D.) Greek manuscripts. Considering the fact that the books were written from 40 A.D. to 100 A.D. it is quite astounding that there are this many copies still in existence today. With an additional 10,000 Latin Vulgate and 9300 earlier versions, there are ‘24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the NT in existence today. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such number and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.’ The original was written in 900 B.C. and the earliest copied portion is dated to 400 B.C. F.E. Peters points out that ‘the works that made up the Christians’ New Testament were the most frequently copied and widely circulated books of antiquity.’ Tests used to determine the age of a manuscript or the consistency of meaning between copies are complex. Needless to say, of all documents of antiquity, the NT is streaks ahead yet again.
The Old Testament naturally does not have the same abundance of close manuscript authority as the N.T. The oldest Hebrew manuscript of the O.T. (the Masoretic text) was dated to 900 A.D. This resulted in a time gap of 1300 yrs to the last original writings of the O.T. No one could be sure of the accurate transmission of the O.T. since the time of Christ until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947! Over 40,000 inscribed fragments constituting more than 500 books were found. This included many O.T. books. The book of Isaiah was dated by paleographers to around 125 B.C. The exactness of this Isaiah scroll to that of the Masoretic text (916 A.D) was testimony to the unusual accuracy of the copyists of Scripture over 1000 years.
The Bible is extraordinary to say the least. A book in this league should be taken seriously by everybody. It just may be the Word of God!
The internal evidence test allows the text itself to prove or disprove itself. It looks for obvious contradictions or known factual inaccuracies. This is not as easy as it seems as you have to be sure you have:
- correctly understood the passage and the sense in which it uses words or numbers.
- that all the available knowledge on the matter is in your possession.
- that no other light can possibly be thrown on it by advancing knowledge, textual research, archaeology etc.
It is common knowledge that countless ‘objections’ have been fully resolved since this century began.
Thanks to the Qumran discoveries, the New Testament proves to be in fact what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between cir.25 and cir.80 A.D. Even the most liberal scholars today would not place the writing of the N.T after 100 A.D.
The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of …first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and again… And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with; there were others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of wilful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those only too glad to do so. On the contrary one of the strong points of the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ but also, ‘As you yourselves also know’ (Acts 2:22).
Had there been any ‘wilful manipulation of the facts’ that escaped the scrutiny of the internal evidence test, the external evidence test would have rendered the historicity of the Bible invalid. The external evidence test shows whether other historical materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents themselves. Other historical documents by many other non-Christian authors confirm the Biblical testimony. First century authors such as Eusebius, Papias, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Polycarp and Flavius Josephus among others, all testify to the accuracy of the events and the lives of many of the N.T. characters, including Jesus. Archaeology is the other source of historic evidence that confirms the accuracy of the Scriptures. Old Testament archaeology has rediscovered whole nations, resurrected important peoples, and in a most astonishing manner, filled in historical gaps, adding immeasurably to the knowledge of Biblical backgrounds. It was also the information given in Scripture that led to the identification of the ancient cities mentioned in the Book of Acts.
This article consists mostly of quotations in Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Indeed, in light of all this evidence, what is your belief regarding this extraordinary book - the Bible?
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