How did we get the Bible?  How do we know that it is God’s Word, and what does that really mean anyway?  If the Bible has been copied and translated so many times, can we have any confidence in modern translations?  How do we know that the right books got included, and have any been left out?  Doesn’t the Bible have contradictions and other errors?  What about other books that claim to be from God?

These are the questions that skeptics ask.  Yet, many Christians do not have satisfying answers.  Yes, the Bible says that it is the Word of God and that it is perfectly true.  But does this claim actually establish itself?  If the Bible were not reliable, then how could we have any confidence in its claim that it is reliable?  Somehow, declaring that the Bible must be the Word of God simply because it says so seems less than persuasive.  After all, there are other alleged holy books that claim to be the Word of God and yet Christians reject them.  To help answer these issues, some historical background is in order.

An Unusual Collection

The Bible is a unique collection of 66 books.  Thirty-nine of these books belong to the Old Testament and twenty-seven are found in the New Testament.[1]  The books of the Old Testament were written primarily in the Hebrew language between 2000 B.C. and 450 B.C.[2]  A 500-year period of silence followed, in which no biblical books were penned.  All the New Testament books were written in Greek in the mid-first century A.D.

The oldest book of the Bible is Job.  This book records the events of the life of Job who was a man of faith in the Living God (Job 1:1).  The descriptions of Job’s wealth are given in terms of livestock and servants, not in terms of coins or currency that would come to be used later in history.  This, along with other information in the book, gives a very approximate date of around 2000 B.C.  Furthermore, Job’s long age (Job 42:16) is consistent with the longevity of human beings around this time – about the same time that Abraham lived.

The next oldest books would be the five books of the Pentateuch, also called the “Torah” which is the Hebrew word meaning “law.”  The books of the law are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These were penned by Moses (John 1:45; Acts 28:23) around the year 1500 B.C.  Four of these (Exodus through Deuteronomy) record primarily events that Moses himself witnessed or could have witnessed.[3]  Genesis is the exception because it records events long before the birth of Moses.

So where did Moses get the information in Genesis?  One possibility is that God directly spoke to Moses or otherwise imparted the information supernaturally to him.  That is certainly not beyond the capabilities of an all-powerful God.  But it is not consistent with the normal way that God chose to record the history of the Bible. God normally used eye-witnesses.  Were there eye-witnesses to the events contained in Genesis?  Yes – the people whose history is recorded in Genesis were witnesses to its events and could have written down much of this history.  Moses likely had access to such documents, and may well have compiled them into the book of Genesis under Divine guidance.

There is internal evidence to support this hypothesis.  Genesis 5:1a states, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”  The Hebrew word translated “generations” is “toledoth” and has the meaning of “birth,” “account,” “descendants,” or “history.”  Hence Genesis 5:1 identifies itself as being the book of the account or history of Adam.  Could this phrase indicate Adam’s signature on the book that he wrote?  The next “toledoth” occurs in Genesis 6:9a which states, “These are the records of the generations of Noah.”  Could this be Noah’s signature?  Sure enough, Noah witnessed the events contained in this section, just as Adam witnessed the events surrounding Genesis 5:1.  Another toledoth occurs in Genesis 10:1 and refers to Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the three sons of Noah.  They could have witnessed the events so recorded.  There are eleven such phrases in Genesis, and each records the name of the person or persons who could have witnessed the events that are described.[4]

But what of the events of the creation week before man was created on the sixth day?  The only witnesses to these events were God Himself along with heaven and Earth.  Sure enough, the first toledoth is that of the “heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 2:4), which may indicate that God Himself wrote the first chapter of Genesis perhaps invoking heaven and Earth as His witnesses.[5]  In any case, it seems likely that Moses used the information in previous historical documents to write Genesis, referencing the author of each section by name.  Other books of history were recorded over the course of time, each containing details that only eye-witnesses could have known, and sometimes listing the author by name (e.g. Joshua 24:26).

In addition to historical narrative, the Old Testament also contains two other types of literature: wisdom literature and prophecy.  Both are written in a poetic style in contrast to the literal style of historical narrative.  The books of wisdom and prophecy usually indicate their author directly (e.g. Psalm 2:1; Proverbs 1:1; Ecclesiastes 1:1; Isaiah 1:1; Jeremiah 1:1).  From the books of history, we know when these authors lived and therefore the approximate time of composition of the books.

The history recorded in the New Testament consists mainly of the four Gospels and the book of Acts.  It contains one book of prophecy: Revelation.  The rest consist of epistles – letters written or endorsed by an apostle.  Almost all the New Testament books list their author directly, or give information by which we can deduce their author (the Gospel of Luke and Acts), though the author of Hebrews is uncertain.  In any case, these books were all written after the resurrection of Christ (Galatians was probably the first, written in the early 50s A.D.).  Most were written before A.D. 70.[6]

The Authenticity of the Bible

The original manuscript penned by a biblical author is called an autograph.  We do not have access to the autographs of any book of the Bible.  But we have access to many copies, and copies of copies.  Over the course of time, the scribes responsible for copying the Scriptures would occasionally make a mistake.  They would omit a word, accidentally duplicate a word, or add a word that they thought someone else had omitted.  They made comments in the margins, and sometimes a later copyist would mistakenly think that such comments were part of the text and would include them as text in a later copy.[7]  Some people are bothered by this and claim that we cannot know what was in the original autographs since we only have copies in which we know mistakes have crept in.  So, do we have any rational basis for trusting that our modern copies are faithful to the original?

In fact, we do.  As the Bible was copied over the course of time, different scribes would make different errors and in different places.  So while manuscript A might introduce an error in a particular verse in the Gospel of John, manuscripts B and C lack that error.  But manuscript B might introduce an error in Matthew, that manuscripts A and C lack.  And so we can often reconstruct the original text by comparing the various manuscripts.  Consider the following fictitious example:

Manuscript A: Jesus Christ is Lrd.
Manuscript B: Christ Jesus is Lord.
Manuscript C: Jesus Christ the Lord.
Manuscript D: Jesus is Lord.
Manuscript E: Jesus Christ is God.

Each manuscript has one error.  Yet, can there be any doubt what the original text said?  By comparing these texts, knowing that different errors occur in different places, we can reconstruct the original.  This is analogous to what Bible scholars do when comparing ancient Greek manuscripts of Scripture.

There is another fact that gives us confidence that we do know what the original authors wrote.  In most places, all the major manuscripts agree.  Those who have not studied biblical transmission sometimes have the impression that there is a high percentage of differences between the different manuscript families.  The opposite is true.  If you consider a modern printed English translation of the Bible, then statistically, the variations in the ancient manuscripts average to something like one word per page.  In other words, there is complete agreement among ancient copies on all the other words on the page.  Manuscript evidence demonstrates therefore that the Bible has been very meticulously copied!  Moreover, most of the differences have no substantial difference in meaning: they differ in spelling, tense, word order, etc.  One copy might have “Jesus Christ” while another has “Christ Jesus” and so the basic meaning is unaffected.

The date of the manuscript also helps us assess any possible copyist errors.  Since errors accumulate over time, generally, the oldest manuscripts have the fewest.  By comparing manuscripts from different times, we can see in many cases when a particular copying error was introduced.  Such scribal errors are few and far between, and do not affect any major doctrine.

For example, consider Matthew 23:14.  The oldest manuscripts do not contain this verse, suggesting that it was not part of the original text penned by Matthew.  Does this affect doctrine?  No.  We know that Jesus did indeed say the words recorded in Matthew 23:14, even if Matthew did not record them.  We know this because Mark and Luke do record this statement (Mark 12:40, Luke 20:47), and there is no manuscript disagreement in these verses.

Assessing Authenticity of Ancient Texts

But how do scholars assess the authenticity of an ancient work – its faithfulness to the original autograph?  Note that we are not asking at this point questions about the truthfulness of the content.  Rather, we are asking how faithfully the content has been transmitted down through time.  The number of ancient manuscripts is one important factor, with more being better.  If there were only two copies of a document, and they contain a difference, we may not know for sure which is the error and which (if either) is true to the original.  On the other hand, if there are a thousand of copies of a document, and a scribe makes a copying mistake in one of them, the error will be obvious because it will clash with the other 999.  When the number of ancient manuscripts is sufficiently large, copying errors are immediately obvious, and identified as such.

The other critical factor is the timescale between when the autograph was written and the oldest manuscript that we currently have; smaller is better.  If a thousand years elapsed between the writing of a document, and the oldest copy that we have discovered, then we have virtually no information about errors that may (or may not) have accumulated during the intervening time.  On the other hand, if only a few hundred years separate the writing of a document from its oldest extant copy, then there has not been sufficient time for substantial errors to accumulate.  The oldest manuscript may have only been copied a few times.  So, the smaller the timescale between writing and discovery, the more confidence we can have in the authenticity of the document.

These two factors together give us an estimate of the authenticity of an ancient writing: the number of ancient copies (more is better), and the timescale between the autograph and the oldest extant manuscript (shorter is better).  When we used these factors, how does the Bible stack up against other ancient literature?

Consider the works of Plato.  His writings date back to around 400-350 B.C.  The oldest existing copy dates to A.D. 900.  So the timescale between authorship and discovery is 1250 years.  And the number of ancient manuscripts (dating before the 12th century)?  Less than ten.  There are some variations between them of course.  Yet modern copies of Plato’s writings are considered authentic; scholars do not doubt that they accurately depict what Plato wrote.

The situation improves dramatically with the works of Homer.  He wrote the Iliad around the year 900 B.C., and the earliest copies we find date back to 400 B.C.  Furthermore, there are over 600 ancient manuscripts.  So the authenticity of this work is unimpeachable.  In fact, the Iliad is often considered the most authentic work of the ancient world…  besides the Bible.

Turning to the Old Testament of the Bible, we have several thousand ancient manuscripts.  About 1000 of these manuscripts are called the Masoretic text and were meticulously copied by Jewish scribes.  So these greatly outnumber ancient copies of the Iliad.  The oldest of the Masoretic texts dates to A.D. 916, so the timescale is quite large and may lead some to doubt the authenticity of the Old Testament.  That was the case until discovery of the dead sea scrolls in 1947.  These contained substantial portions of every book of the Old Testament except Esther, and they date back to 250 B.C.  That’s only about 200 years after the last book of the Old Testament was written!  They also showed astonishing agreement with the Masoretic texts, proving that the Jewish scribes were meticulous in their efforts.

There are around 25,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, nearly 6,000 of which are in the original Greek language with the rest being translations.  That’s superb!  And what about the timescale between the autographs and the oldest extant copy?  We have manuscripts of entire books of the New Testament that date to the 3rd and even 2nd century – less than 200 years, and often less than 100 years from the time of writing.  Fragments of the Gospel of John have been found from the early second century.  At that time, there were people living who could have potentially met John himself.  With so short a time span, there is no doubt that the New Testament books are authentic.

The Bible is actually the most authentic collection of books from the ancient world by far.  So if we cannot have confidence that the Bible has been accurately transmitted over time, then we shouldn’t have confidence that anything has been accurately transmitted.  If the Bible were not authentic, then we could know nothing about the ancient world.  That the Bible is the most authentic work of antiquity should perplex the critics.  Why is this collection of books so much better established than any other?  There are other books of history and other books of religion of course.  But none even come close to the authenticity of the Bible.  Why is this?  Why is the Bible so unique?

Of course, the uniqueness of the Bible does not, by itself, establish reliability.  Nor does it prove that the Bible is God’s Word.  And how do we know that our English Bible is a reliable translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts?  More to come.

[1] Some printed Bibles contain an extra 14 books known as the Apocrypha.  However, there are good reasons to believe that these are not part of God’s Word, as will be shown.

[2] Parts of Daniel are written in Aramaic.

[3] An exception would be the last part of the last chapter of Deuteronomy, which records Moses’s death and the events very shortly thereafter.  This final chapter may have been written by Joshua.

[4] Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 36:9, 37:2.

[5] God often invoked heaven and earth as His witnesses.  See Deuteronomy 4:26, 30:19, 31:28

[6] Some scholars date the works of John as later than A.D. 70, but before the turn of the century.

[7] John 5:4 may be an example of this.  The most ancient manuscripts do not contain this verse.