The Christian faith depends on the truth claims made in the Bible. Through investigating the writings, the trustworthiness of the authors, and consistency with sources and events outside of the Bible, we can be assured that the Bible that we have today is indeed true and reliable. The authority of the Old Testament, and most of the New Testament relies on the authority of Jesus who is the Son of God and Savior of Man. Because of this, our examination must begin with the four Gospels, the books that relay the narrative of Jesus.
The New Testament is only reliable to the extent that the authors can be trusted. Those who challenge the credibility of the authors of the New Testament argue that they either made no claims to record historical events or that they wrote much later than the actual events with the intention of deceiving their audience.
All four authors were close and careful observers of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew and John were both disciples of Jesus, which makes them eyewitnesses to the events they describe. Mark was not a disciple; but he was from Jerusalem, which would have made it likely that he was an eyewitness. There is also a strong tradition, testified to by Church father Papias in 125 AD, that Mark recorded the eyewitness observations of the disciple Peter. Luke wasn’t a disciple, and he wasn’t an eyewitness, but he did spend time with Paul and likely had contact with other eyewitnesses.
Scripture supports the view that the authors viewed themselves as communicating truth through the careful recording of history. At the beginning of his gospel, Luke even tells the reader how important it is to him to record the events he writes about accurately. He writes,” Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4, All scripture quoted from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible). He appeals to eyewitness testimony, how careful he was in gathering the information, and the assurance of truth that his account should give his audience.
Mark writes that Jesus confirmed the truth of their message through His miracles (Mark 16:20), and John puts his own words on the same level with those delivered to the Hebrew people through Moses (John 5:46-47). John also concludes his account by affirming his authorship and trustworthiness in saying, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24)
The writers of the gospels clearly claimed to be recording history, but can they be trusted? Is it possible that they wrote what they did in an attempt to deceive people? Or, could they have recorded the events inaccurately because as followers of Jesus they were biased?”
The accusation that the gospels are invented stories relies on a late dating of the original writings, also known as autographs. It takes years, more realistically centuries, for legends to develop. Most scholars of the Bible who are experts in determining when ancient texts were written propose dates between 40-60 AD for the gospels. The significance of this is that they were written within 30 years of the death of Jesus, meaning that many witnesses to the events would have still been living to either affirm or refute these claims. In his letter to the church at Corinth, which was written before the gospels, Paul writes of how the resurrected Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive” (1 Corinthians 15:6). Even those scholars who attempt to undermine the validity of the gospels, date them around 70-100 AD. This simply doesn’t allow time for legend to develop and take hold.
The gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke, often overlap in the details of the events they describe. The fact that they tell the same story in different ways is evidence supporting the fact that these are independently researched accounts and not the product of an attempt to partner together in intentionally deceiving followers. The fact that 10 out of the 12 disciples were put to death because of their unwillingness to change their story regarding Jesus or their belief in Him is further evidence that they were not simply lying for personal gain. It is unlikely that they all be willing to die to protect a lie. Like all authors, the writers had a bias. They wrote to convince people to believe in Jesus. Winfried Corduan, professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University, notes the difference between ancient histories written to glorify kings and rulers and the objectivity of the Bible. He writes, “If the Gospel writers had intended to present nothing more than propaganda for their belief in Jesus, they might have served their case better by leaving out phases of their description of Jesus that turn off the unbelieving reader.” They likely would have simplified difficult teaching and would have excised the portions of Scripture that cast Jesus in a seemingly negative light.
Since we do not have the originals, we must rely on copies of the original texts. Manuscripts are handwritten copies written in the original language. Noted Christian apologist Norm Geisler notes that compared to other ancient works, the New Testament is preserved in an astounding number of “partial and complete manuscript portions that were copied by hand from the second (possibly even the first) through the fifteenth centuries.” The New Testament is “the most accurately copied book from the ancient world.” There are over 5,800 New Testament manuscripts, and the number continues to rise. In comparison, there are 251 surviving manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The large number of manuscripts makes it possible to more accurately determine what the original said. Mistakes in the copies, or variants, can be more readily distinguished through comparison.
The dating of the manuscripts also lends support to the reliability of the New Testament record. For most ancient manuscripts, including Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the earliest manuscripts are dated around 1,000 years after the originals. The earliest New Testament manuscript, a fragment from John, is dated at around 50 years after the original; and there is a complete New Testament manuscript dated only 250 years after the original. More newly discovered manuscripts will likely push this dating back even further. These early dates decrease the likelihood of copyist errors, and reveal that eyewitnesses to the events would have still been living at the time that manuscripts were being circulated.
The manuscripts allow us to confirm the internal consistency of the Bible, and other histories of the time period further demonstrate its historical accuracy. Among extra-biblical sources, Tacitus, Josephus, and the Talmud provide some of the most interesting details from sources outside the Bible.
Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120) was known as the “greatest historian” of ancient Rome. His work Annals confirms the fact that Christians were named for Christ, that Jesus was put to death by Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, that the doctrine of Christianity was carried to Rome, and that Christians were arrested and tortured. He also writes of a “superstition” that broke out again after Jesus’ death, perhaps a reference to the resurrection.
A Jewish historian writing for the Romans, Flavius Josephus (ca. AD 37-97), wrote earlier than Tacitus; but some of the information about Jesus in his work Antiquities is disputed. Some of his words appear to be an interpolation (something introduced or added to the original text) by Christians. It is believed that most of the text is genuine, and historians agree that he wrote of Jesus that James was His brother, that Pilate condemned Him to be crucified, that He was a wise man who was called messiah, and that His disciples proclaimed His teachings and believed in His resurrection.
The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings, which were initially preserved by oral tradition and recorded around 200 AD. Interestingly, the negative portrayal of Jesus found in the Talmud supports the gospel accounts. It is said that Jesus was guilty of “sorcery” and that He led His followers into “apostasy.” The apostasy may refer to Jesus’ acceptance of worship as God. The accusation of sorcery, while not a recognition of miracles as a confirmation of Jesus’ divinity, reveals that He performed supernatural acts that required an explanation.
In summary, by applying the same sort of investigation that any historical account would be expected to withstand, we find that the Bible is a trustworthy account of real events. The authors were reliable witnesses, the documents were well-preserved, and the facts that they relay are consistent with other documents.
Those who would like to read more on this topic are encouraged to check out:
Bible.org - Is the Bible Reliable? (https://bible.org/article/bible-reliable%E2%80%94seven-questions)
LeeStrobel.com - Investigating Faith (http://www.leestrobel.com/channels/Bible.php)
GotQuestions.org - Is the Bible True? (http://www.gotquestions.org/is-the-Bible-true.html)
Winfried Corduan - No Doubt about It: The Case for Christianity. (http://amzn.com/0805416471)
Norman Geisler - Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. (http://amzn.com/0801021510)
Gary Habermas - The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. (http://amzn.com/0899007325)
Dean Hardy - Stand Your Ground: An Introductory Text for Apologetics Students. (http://amzn.com/B005KT3HTC)
Lee Strobel - The Case for Christ. (http://amzn.com/B000FC2KEM)