Over the coming (school) year, the congregation I serve is going “Back To The Story.” Each week, we are encouraging our church family to read along with the book The Story, which is a translation of the Bible in narrative form, making it easier to read as one continuous story. The sermons will focus on a particular moment or moments from each chapter, and people will be going deeper as they study The Story in small groups and Bible studies. Our grade school, too, will be diving into The Story in chapels and lessons.
But one of the criticisms I’ve heard from people outside the church is that we focus too much on and place too much trust in The Bible. They claim it is just a collection of myths written by human beings, and is full of errors and contradictions. But is that really true? Can we trust the Bible? This is a longer post than usual, but it answers a lot of questions.
To begin with, it helps to understand what the Bible is. From the Greek ta biblia, meaning ‘little books,’ the Bible is a collection of 66 individual books and letters, written by over 40 men in three languages, across three continents, spanning over 2,000 years. Each book was written at a particular time in a particular style to a particular context, and their authors included kings and wise men, farmers and physicians, poets and fishermen – many of whom were writing as eyewitnesses. Some books are carefully researched histories, some are collections of wise sayings, and some are letters which carefully explain teachings about the faith. And yet, in spite of their wide diversity in terms of author, content and context, they share one unified message. Christians believe that this is because those authors were inspired (guided) by God.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:16-21
But who decided which books got to be in the Bible? Well, like Jesus and His Apostles, the early Christians were Jews who accepted the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the “Old Testament”) as inspired and authoritative Scripture. This prompted the early church to assemble its own list of Christian writings (the “New Testament”) to be the established canon (standard) for all churches.
They were quick to recognize the value and authority of letters written by early authority figures like Peter and Paul, which were intended for public reading in the early churches. They also, for obvious reasons, treasured the life and teachings of Jesus. Although the first Gospels (“Good News”) were not produced until around 60 AD, their contents were available in both oral and written form soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection took place around the year 30.
Paul’s letters were assembled first of all, probably around the end of the first century. By the middle of the second century, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were brought together, and by the middle of the second century, John’s Gospel was added.
Around the same time, there arose groups who tried to create their own collection. However, in spite of what the History Channel may tell you, these groups were never very large, and were never taken seriously by practicing Christians. These included the Gnostics, who had existed prior to Jesus’ birth and who basically tried to retcon (add retroactively) Jesus into their previous mythology. The other group was centered around Marcion, who believed that the God of the Old Testament had been defeated by Jesus.
The notion that these writings were left out of the New Testament because church leadership was threatened by them is historically laughable – they were never taken seriously by anyone until modern attempts to give them more validity than they deserve.
By the late second century, even though most churches were using the same writings, church leaders thought it was vital to spell out which books were ‘officially’ accepted. The first list we know of is the Muratorian canon, which dates to about 200. It lists 21 of the current 27 books, plus a book from the Apocrypha (the ‘extra’ books in the Roman Catholic Old Testament) and a Revelation to Peter which it lists “with reservations.”
By the early 3rd century (200’s), only a handful of books continued to be debated. Hebrews was not accepted by the majority of churches in the West because of questions of authorship, while Revelation was not accepted in the East because it had been heavily used by a fringe group nobody wanted to be associated with.
But by the beginning of the 4th century (300’s), the only disputed books were James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude, and even then they were spoken against by some but accepted by most.
In 367 AD, Athanasius the Bishop of Alexandria wrote an Easter letter instructing churches to accept a list of 27 approved books, and that letter was the primary list used to establish the New Testament, which consists of the same 27 books.
Athanasius also wrote that he would allow the reading of two books called the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, though he did not declare them to be authoritative. Three other books, 1 Clement, the Letter of Barnabas and the Diatessaron (a harmony of the four Gospels), were also accepted for a time by some churches. But these five, plus the 27 included in the canon, were the only 32 books ever taken seriously by any active Christian congregations!
Note that not a single one of the disputed books has ever been mentioned as being among the so-called ‘controversial’ books which were supposedly ‘censored’ by the Church. In fact, none of these books are controversial, so the books that get brought up instead are books which were never at any point considered authoritative by any churches. At best, these books were used by a few fringe groups to promote unorthodox teachings such as the rejection of sex and marriage, or the belief that Jesus was only an astral projection of God. The books which are frequently cited, books like the Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Thomas, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, were not even taken seriously by fringe groups. These imaginative books were the novels and romances of early Christianity; what we might call fanfic (amateur fiction) today.
So, although the church leaders had established the canon (approved list), all they really did was stamp their authority on what had already been in use by churches since the time of the Apostles. But the rules used to determine whether a book was canon or not were quite strict. In order for a book to be considered authoritative, it had to have been:
- Written or sponsored by an Apostle,
- Recognizably orthodox in content, and
- Widely and publicly used by a prominent church or majority of churches.
The Historical Evidence: Is the Bible Reliable?
Warning: this next section is extremely detailed, but it answers a lot of the criticisms about whether or not the Bible is a credible source. Spoiler alert: there may be no more credible source in all history.
We don’t have any original manuscripts, so how can we know it hasn’t changed? How can we trust the Bible when there are four separate accounts of Jesus’ life and they don’t even agree with each other?!? There are too many errors! These are silly arguments that sound credible but ignore how history works. Let’s look at each one:
How can we know the Bible hasn’t changed, when we don’t have any original copies?
Well, the earliest complete New Testament manuscript available to us is the Codex (an ancient collection of writings in book form) Sinaiticus, which dates from the 4th century (300’s) – far earlier and closer to Jesus’ life than these critics imply. Even so, less complete manuscripts date to the late 2nd (100’s) and early 3rd (200’s) centuries! In fact, we have a fragment of papyrus containing part of the Gospel of John which dates from 125!
We have 90 papyrii, 260 uncial manuscripts (written in Greek capital letters) and 2,700 miniscule manuscripts (written in flowing Greek script), as well as 2,200 lectionary manuscripts (written for use in reading aloud). All of these are hand-written, from which we can study the New Testament. Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Bezae date from the 5th century, and Codex Washingtonianus dates to the 4th or 5th century. In all, over 25,000 ancient New Testament manuscripts have been discovered! We have two excellent manuscripts from the 4th century (300’s), which are merely the earliest of the thousands available to us for study, and fragments remain which are dated 100-200 years earlier than that!
For Comparison: Homer’s Iliad only has 2,000 ancient manuscripts available to us. We have 9-10 manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58-50 BC), the oldest of which dates 900 years after Caesar. Of the Histories of Tacitus (100 AD), only two portions survive, one from the 9th century and the other the 11th. The History of Thucydides (460-400 BC) is known to us from eight manuscripts, the earliest from around 900 AD, and the same is true of the History of Herodotus (488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt – and the New Testament is so much better in this respect!
How can we trust the Bible when there are four separate accounts of Jesus’ life and they don’t even agree with each other?!?
First, three of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who knew Jesus, and the fourth, the Gospel of Luke, was written (along with the book of Acts) by a well-educated physician who carefully researched Jesus’ life and interviewed many eyewitnesses in order to write his account. The four Gospels are absolutely in agreement in terms of content, though certain details may differ. The reason for this should be obvious, as different eyewitnesses notice, focus on and emphasize in the retelling different things. This makes the Gospels, which never differ on Jesus’ identity, teaching or mission, more reliable, not less.
For comparison: the Koran is based on Muhammad’s dictation of prophecy which only he received and which no one else could corroborate. So too the book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. The Buddha’s teachings were not written down until over 500 years after his death, certainly not by any witnesses. The teachings of Confucius, which he assembled from ancient writings and did not create himself, were not even taken seriously by anyone until 700 years after his death.
Further, the historical contents of the Old and New Testaments have been corroborated by outside historical sources over and over and over again, and have never been successfully contradicted.
Isn’t the Bible full of errors?
This is a claim that is based on a misunderstanding of terms. Scholars differentiate between what are known as textual variants and actual errors, and the two are not the same. When something is copied, there will often be variances. What is important is not the presence of a variance but the type: what changed, and does the variance alter or affect the narrative of the text? Does it change the substance? In the case of the Bible, scholars have found textual variances, which some incorrectly call errors. Examples include:
- Matthew 1:6 – Some manuscripts have “David,” while others have “David the king.”
- Matthew 6:25 – Some have “or what you will drink,” while others have “and what you will drink.”
- Luke 8:26 – Some have “Gerasenes,” while others have “Gergesenes” or “Gadarenes.”
These changes do not affect the substance of the text, and are therefore considered minor variances. Of the major variances, only three exist and, far from being ignored, they are documented in nearly every Bible:
- Mark 16:9-20 – Some manuscripts end at verse 8, while others include verses 9-20. Nothing in the longer version is in any way troubling or scandalous, however.
- John 7:53-8:11 – The account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is not included in many manuscripts, which raises questions about why – but does not contradict or change the character or teachings of Jesus.
- 1 John 5:7-8 – Later manuscripts include an explicit reference to the Trinity: “the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit.” The sentence is not found in any manuscript before the 14th century. Again, nothing substantive (of substance) is changed or affected.
In the case of the Bible, no actual errors have been documented by scholars. By comparison, as many as 3,900 and perhaps as many as 5,000 significant changes in content, or errors, have been identified in the Book of Mormon.
The Word of God
None of this in itself proves that the Bible is God’s Truth – that remains a matter of faith. However, the evidence is there, more than for any other ancient, historical or religious text, that the Bible was written by actual people living in actual history who were able to successfully predict things that would happen after they lived, in spite of living at different times throughout history, in different parts of the world, separated by time, distance, language, culture and socioeconomic status. and the content and message of the Bible, like the message of Christianity itself, has never changed. That’s not subjective, it is the very definition of objective.
It’s Your Bible. It’s your story – the story of salvation. Read it. Study it. Know it. Love it. Trust it. Go back to the Story.
- Dowley, Tim, et al. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Fortress Press, 2006.
- Sutton, A. Trevor. Why Should I Trust the Bible? Concordia Publishing House, 2016.
- *Other sources included within the article as links.