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By Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO.

A Christian and a Mormon are discussing their various beliefs. The Christian thinks she has found a verse which disproves her friend’s conviction that God the Father has a human body. She knows Mormons believe the Bible is the Word of God. But the Mormon replies that parts of the Scripture have not been accurately preserved and so dismisses her argument.

A Muslim and a Christian have each read each other’s Scriptures. As they talk with each other about what they’ve read, the Muslim exclaims, "You can’t always trust everything the Bible says. For example, we believe that Jesus was a great prophet, but not that he was the Son of God. That is blasphemous!"

A leading physicist, who is also an atheist, is responding to his Christian cousin’s witness. "It is simply incredible that any educated person in today’s modern scientific age could believe in the kind of miracles described in the Bible. You yourself admit that the resurrection of Jesus is the key to the credibility of your faith. As a scientist, I cannot accept such a story as literal fact."

The university student speaks up in a class on world religions. The uniqueness of Christianity has repeatedly been denied. "But what about Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life?" she asks. Her professor replies, "Well, you know, modern biblical scholarship has demonstrated that Jesus almost certainly never spoke those words."

Types of Objections

Each of these true stories has one obvious feature in common. Many people in our modern world do not believe that the Scriptures are reliable or trustworthy. Therefore Christians who quote the Bible in conversation to support their beliefs get nowhere. Is there evidence for the trustworthiness of Scripture? The real answer is a resounding "yes!"

Each of these four stories also illustrates one of the four major ways in which the Bible’s trustworthiness can be suspect. Sometimes people doubt whether it has been faithfully copied and transmitted down through the centuries. This is the textual question. Some are prepared to accept what the Bible says happened, but not the theology that Christians derive from those events.

Others have scientific or philosophical objections to portions of the Old and New Testaments, most notably the miracles. Finally, many people believe that not everything Scripture says happened actually took place. This is the historical question. Entire books have been written on both sides of each of these four issues. One brief article can only highlight a few points with respect to each and refer the interested reader to additional bibliography.

The textual problem is most easily addressed. Scholars of textual criticism from virtually every theological position (including atheists) agree that the Scriptures have been remarkably well preserved, far more so than for any other ancient documents. Even the most cautious estimates suggest that over 90% of the Old Testament and over 97% of the New are completely beyond dispute. That is to say, modern scholarly editions of the Hebrew (and Aramaic portions of the) Old Testament and the Greek New Testament rely on sufficient manuscript evidence that we can be sure with a high level of confidence that we can reconstruct what the original writers wrote.

Of the passages in which textual variants occur, the vast majority involve minor differences in spelling or grammar which leave the meaning of the texts unaffected. Those passages in which potentially significant variations do occur are usually listed in footnotes in the better English translations and editions of the Bible, so any reader can know exactly where they appear. And it is fair to conclude that no point of Christian doctrine relies solely on disputed textual variants.

Theological questions prove more subtle. For example, solid historical evidence can be marshaled to corroborate the claim that "Jesus died." But no amount of archeology or comparative literature will ever prove the theological affirmation that "Jesus died for our sins." Whether or not one believes this claim will depend on what one thinks of the credibility of Jesus and his followers more generally.

If there are reasons to believe the historically testable claims of Scripture (see below) and the integrity of the Bible characters, then, logically, one should be inclined to accept their theology. Put another way, if there is evidence for believing that Jesus really did say most of what the Gospels claim he did, and if there is reason to believe from what he said that he was a person of high moral integrity, not easily deluded, then we ought to accept his teaching about the nature and purpose of his death (e.g. Mark 10:45).

Scientific and philosophical questions land us in yet a third, quite different kind of debate. Interestingly, in this post-Einstein, post-Heisenberg era of science, which has bequeathed to us principles of relativity and indeterminacy, many scientists are far more cautious than they used to be about pronouncing what can and what cannot happen. One Christian philosopher teaching at a major, secular California university has commented that the physicists he knows are more willing to believe in miracles than the biblical scholars (Stephen T. Davis in Gospel Perspectives, vol. 6 [Sheld: jsot, 1986], pp. 425-26)!

But of course that does not mean we believe every miraculous claim anybody ever makes. What sets the biblical miracles apart from many others is how appropriate they are for demonstrating the truth of God’s revelation. Even seemingly frivolous miracles teach profound truths if we understand their contexts.

For example, Elisha making the ax-head float showed Yahweh’s power over Baal, thought to be lord of the water. Christ turning water into wine was not intended primarily to promote the drinking of alcohol, but to demonstrate the new, joyous teaching of the gospel over against the old water jars (or wineskins) of Judaism.

Historical questions are the hardest to address in so short a space. I have written a whole book just on the issue of the historical reliability of the Gospels. But a few points may be noted here.

(1) Most of the historical narratives of Scripture were written down after a comparatively brief period of oral transmission, briefer than the length of time usually required to produce full-fledged legends and myths. This point, by the way, is much easier to demonstrate from the New Testament than for the Old, but a plausible case can be made even for the latter in many places.

(2) Most of these biblical stories involved the presence of eyewitnesses who were in a position to pass along accurate information to others for preservation. This sets the Scripture writers apart from various Greco-Roman historians who, like Thucydides, admitted that they often had no first-hand sources for reconstructing events they narrated.

(3) Jewish culture and educational systems focused heavily on rote memorization and produced prodigious feats of recall, for example, rabbis learning verbatim all of what we call the Old Testament and, at times much of the so-called Oral Law as well. Possibilities for accurate preservation of historical detail by mere word-of-mouth were far greater in ancient Judaism than they ever would be in our modern societies.

(4) Archeology and other ancient literature increasingly corroborates all kinds of interesting details in the Bible, even if, in fairness, we must admit that many details by their very nature can probably never be corroborated (e.g. private conversations which were never preserved in any source except Scripture).

(5) For many people, the most telling evidence against the historical reliability of the Bible is its many alleged contradictions. But plausible solutions to each of these have been suggested; the best evangelical commentaries on each of the books of Scripture will point the interested reader to those solutions.

(6) All of this has still said nothing about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Unbelievers of course will not find an appeal to God’s Spirit as a valid argument. It is in a different category from (1)-(5) above, which are arguments anyone may examine and assess. But Christians must admit that (1)-(5) cannot prove every detail of the Bible. They can suggest only that a good case can be made for its general trustworthiness. But the "step of faith" which permits us to move from general trustworthiness to believe the entire inerrancy of Scriptures is not one which flies in the face of the evidence but one which continues in the same direction the evidence has been pointing.

For Further Reading

Carl Armerding, The Old Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).
Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: ivp, 1987).
F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: IVP, 1960).
Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP, 1966).

The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1992.
It was posted on this website March 2, 1997.

The Bible     The Bible: General Reliability

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