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Is The Bible A Reliable Historical Document?
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Religion of Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Source: robert g. coleman

Is The Bible A Reliable Historical Document?

People who dismiss the Bible as unreliable and unworthy of attention often challenge its historical credibility. The average Christian usually does not know how to adequately respond to the sophisticated form of this challenge. For instance a critic might submit as a historical fact, an issue like the council of Nicaea during the fourth century to say that this was the point at which Christians met to change things in the Bible to suit their erroneous teachings. For the skeptic this is a good strategy because if you can prove the historical unreliability of the Bible, then Christianity, which is perhaps the world’s most spiritually and morally disturbing faith (i.e. its teachings hunts the human conscience with the issue of sin in the heart), becomes minced meat. Truth be told, most Ghanaian Christians do not know much about Christian Church history; they hardly look beyond their denominations. Skeptics often argue against the Bible’s reliability with reasons ranging from the Bible being a myth to having contradictions and also to being textually unreliable. Of course, the implication of Christians hinging their beliefs and way of life on a historically unreliable document is very serious; the oft-repeated charge that Christianity goes against reason or intellect will become valid if this is the case.

In fact, there is a growing number of Christian youngsters in Ghana today who are questioning their beliefs about the Bible in the face of some scientific theories, challenges from the popular New Atheists in the West and sadly the irrational behaviour and practices of the present popular Christianity in the country. Christianity in Ghana, in the past, has not faced much intellectual attacks and as a result most present day Ghanaian Christians honestly do not know how to deal with challenges to the credibility of the Bible as a reliable historical document. This is understandable. But Ghanaian Christians need to understand that the times have changed. A increasing number of young people who were brought up on Christian teachings are now rejecting the faith because they are not getting reasonable or intellectually satisfying answers to their nagging questions. Their present number may be relatively small in Ghana, since we have historically not been a very questioning culture. But with more Ghanaians being educated to higher levels, and having easy access to information around the globe, the questions that their curious minds are raising should not be ignored. They must be addressed head-on.

I am aware that there are huge volumes of books that have responded to claims of the Bible’s unreliability so I will not pretend that this short article will exhaustively address the challenges mentioned above. What I want to do here is to whet the appetite of honest skeptics, critics and seekers for embarking on an honest investigation of the Bible’s reliability as a historical document. I use the word ‘honest’ because there are those who, in their rhetoric, give the impression that they are intellectually honest in their search for answers yet who have actually already made up their minds not to seriously consider any evidence or argument that will go in favour of the Bible or Christianity. Such people are not my target readership because I am convinced of the words of the sage who once observed that, “To give truth to him who loves it not is but to give him plentiful material for misinterpretation.” And let me also clarify that when I use the word “Bible,” I am limiting it to the mainstream translations in the public domain which have not been customized for the theologies of any particular church or fringe group. Also this article defends only the historical reliability of the Bible and not the truthfulness of its doctrines, which is a subject for another article.

Myth or History

Christianity would not be so disturbing had it not been for its claim that Jesus is the Son of God and that he is the only way to God and also that these claims are recorded in the Bible. For some these claims are uncomfortably exclusive and they find it easier to believe the hypothesis that Christians in later generations actually invented these ideas which the early disciples of Jesus (if there ever were any) never thought of. But the fact is that this is simply not true! If Jesus’ divinity and claim of exclusivity are myths invented by later generations then there must have been at least two or three generations between the original eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus and the universal belief in the mythic, divinized and exclusive Jesus. Why? In the absence of this condition, the myth could not have been believed as fact since it would have been refuted by eyewitnesses of the real historical Jesus. Both his disciples and his enemies would have had reasons to oppose this new myth. Incidentally, we find no such evidence at all of anyone ever opposing the so-called myth of the divine Jesus in the name of an earlier merely human Jesus. The New testament manuscripts from first century show that this idea of a divine Jesus originated from the very disciples and followers of Christ right in the first century and no competent scholar today denies the first-century dating of virtually all of the New Testament.

Further, the claim of Jesus to be God makes sense of his trial and the Jewish leaders’ desire for his crucifixion. You see, the Jewish sensitivity to blasphemy was a unique thing in the Roman world. No sympathizers of any of the pagan religions at that time would have so fanatically insisted on the death penalty as punishment for claiming divinity because the prevailing attitude in the Roman world toward the gods was “the more, the merrier.” For instance, a city like Athens had many altars for the several gods yet just to make sure that they had not missed any god, they made an altar “to an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Now if we still want to maintain that the divine Jesus of the Gospels is a myth, then the question begging to be answered is: who invented it? Whether it was Jesus’ first disciples or some later generation, no credible motive can account for this invention. Why do I say this? Until the Edict of Milan in AD 313, Christians were subject to serious persecution. They were often tortured and killed, and hated and oppressed for their beliefs. No one, especially a skeptical first century Jew, would invent an elaborate practical joke in order to be crucified, stoned or beheaded for it!

Textual Reliability

While some people who may have done some research on the Bible love to point out what they believe to be inaccuracies in modern Bibles as compared to earlier manuscripts, others who have done no study on the subject will often use such purported inaccuracies as valid reasons for not having anything to do with the teachings of the book. Can we trust the Bible as we have it today?

When you take the story about Jesus for instance, we have four Gospels rather than one. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by four different writers, at four different times, and with four somewhat different purposes and emphasis. This makes cross-checking possible. Through a textual comparison, we can fix the facts with far greater assurance here than with any other ancient series of events about a historical figure. Like some historians have observed, “The only inconsistencies are in chronology (only Luke’s Gospel claims to be in exact order) and accidentals like numbers (e.g. did the women see one angel or two at the empty tomb?)” Further, Historians evaluate the textual reliability of ancient literature according to two standards: (1) What he time interval is between the original and the earliest copy available and (2) how many manuscripts are available.

Knowledge of Julius Caesar’s exploits in the Gallic Wars are available today because of ten manuscript copies, the earliest of which dates to within 1,000 years of the time it was written by Caesar, somewhere 100-44 BC. Plato’s writings took place around 400 BC and there are seven manuscripts available today, the earliest of which dates to within 1,300 years after Plato’s death. Homer’s ‘Iliad’ is much more reliable in terms of time gap because the time gap between the date of its composition and the date of the earliest copies available to us for examination today is 400 years. It was composed in 800 BC and the earliest manuscript copy dates around 400 BC. It is worthy to note that all we know about Socrates today is known through his student Plato’s writings yet nobody doubts that Socrates ever existed. Isn’t it interesting then to see people expressing unease or trying to discredit the Gospels just because the disciples of Jesus wrote them?

When we use these same standards above which historians typically use, the New Testament stands impressively tall and without equal when compared to other ancient documents. There are nearly 25,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament books available in Libraries and universities around the world today. John’s gospel has the earliest manuscript copies available to us today in the form of fragments (located in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England) dating to within 50 years from when the apostle John authored the original between AD 50-100. Which ancient document comes close to this? Further, the earliest Greek manuscript copies available today of the Complete New Testament dates to 225 years from the original writing. This is about half the time gap for manuscript copies of Homer’s Iliad, which is the most historically reliable ancient secular document. This is simply impressive. People who accuse Christians of adulterating and falsifying the current Bible need only to go to the Libraries to do the comparisons. But of course it is easier to claim intellectual honesty while making sweeping statements, perpetuating myths and accusing Christians of rejecting their intellect since most unsophisticated Christians will not be able to put up any formidable defence, isn’t it? Even more interesting is that those who accuse Christians of doctoring the current Bible are hard-pressed to produce any originals with which to compare. In essence, the critic is really saying, “I don’t have any evidence but just take my word for it, your Bible has been corrupted.” Quite sad!

As far as the Old Testament (The Jewish Scriptures) is concerned, the standards for making copies were incredibly strict. The Jewish scribes saw the discipline as a high spiritual calling. And the accuracy of their copying has been confirmed by the discovery of the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ in 1947. Prior to 1947 the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript dated to AD 900. With the discovery of 223 manuscripts in caves on the west side of the Dead Sea, we now have Old Testament manuscripts that palaeographers have dated around 125 BC. These are 1000 years older than the previously known manuscripts. After the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it has been discovered that the text of the modern version of the Hebrew Bible is 95% identical, with the 5% variation consisting mainly of spelling variations. This is nothing short of impressive. And religiously speaking, this remarkably shows how the Sovereign and All-powerful God, even while working with and through fallible men, has preserved his teachings throughout the ages for the World so that we may all get to know him as he is.


Contradiction is a serious thing anytime truth is in question and since Christians claim that Christianity is a religion based on truth, it is crucial that the charges of contradictions in the Bible be looked at carefully. I am sure the critics have a tall list of what is believed to be contradictions that are enough to bury the Bible. But like I indicated in the beginning, this article is meant to whet the appetite of the honest skeptics for investigating the historical reliability of the Bible. For this article I have chosen to look at just a few regarding the story of Jesus Christ in the gospels, in particular, the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the linchpin on which all of Christianity hangs. Christianity stands or falls on the truthfulness of this story, and thus if the eyewitness accounts are essentially contradictory, then there is a big problem – their story cannot be relied upon. One critic has complained that:

“In Matthew, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrived toward dawn at the tomb there is a rock in front of it, there is a violent earthquake, and an angel descends and rolls back the stone. In Mark, the women arrive at the tomb at sunrise and the stone had been rolled back. In Luke, when the women arrive at early dawn they find the stone had already been rolled back. In Matthew, an angel is sitting on the rock outside the tomb and in Mark a youth is inside the tomb. In Luke, two men are inside. In Matthew, the women present at the tomb are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. In Mark, the women present at the tomb are the two Marys and Salome. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and the other women are present at the tomb.”

On the surface, this seems like a combination of hopeless contradictions which should severely damage the narrative about Jesus’ empty tomb. But hold on a moment! Take a closer look at the each of the narratives in the gospels and you will realize that the differences are in the secondary details. There is actually a historical core to the story that can be relied upon – that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb and sealed with a rock, the tomb was visited by a small group of women followers of Jesus early on Sunday morning and they found it empty but they saw a vision of angel(s) saying that Jesus had risen from the dead. The differences in the names of the women, their number, the exact time of the morning etc do not disturb the core of the story. Besides the differences in the empty tomb narratives actually informs us that we have multiple independent confirmation of the story. Indeed if all four gospels were identical in the smallest details, it would raise suspicion of plagiarism.

We must also note how history was recorded back then and how different it is from our ‘journalist reports’ today. The oral transmission of history focused on the major issues of the hero's life, not the excruciating details of our 21st century style of reportage. Historical documents of that age typically followed this principle and it is not unique to the Bible. “We have two narratives of Hannibal crossing the Alps to attack Rome, and they’re incompatible and irreconcilable. Yet no classical historian doubts the fact that Hannibal did mount such a campaign. That’s a non-biblical illustration of discrepancies in secondary details failing to undermine the historical core of a historical story,” quipped Dr. Lane Craig, a Christian Historian and Philosopher, in an interview with former investigative journalist (also an Atheist-turned-Christian) Lee Strobel. Most of what seem like contradictions in the Bible could actually be resolved easily with some background knowledge and an open-minded reading of the text. It is fascinating to watch people who usually would boast of open-mindedness suddenly switching to closed-mindedness mode when it comes to the Bible.


Those who reject the Bible on the grounds of historical unreliability do so not because of the absence of evidence but because of the suppression of evidence or unwillingness to pursue the evidence wherever it may lead. Like I have indicated twice already, my hope is that this piece whets the appetite of honest skeptics who probably thought the Bible was not historically reliable, to embark on an investigative adventure. I also hope that young Christians who may be doubting the historical reliability of the Bible will find some confidence to keep studying about the Bible and come to the point of wanting to study Bible’s contents and rightly applying them to their lives. The beauty about the Bible is that it stands up to scrutiny. Many have tried to argue against it, destroy it, bury it, and falsify its contents by claiming things it never claimed but the authentic Word of God continues to live on long after its opponents are dead. If God is indeed sovereign and all-powerful God (which he is) then this is exactly what we should expect – he keeps his Word from being lost, adulterated or destroyed. I have little doubt that skeptics who will take my challenge to do an honest investigation of the Bible’s credibility will find that not only is the Bible historically reliable, but its ultimate Author – God – is very trustworthy also.

By Robert G. Coleman, author of the book, ‘Why Don’t I Feel My Faith’
(Contact Author: boabs2010@gmail.com; Blog: www.rgcoleman.wordpress.com )
Message 36 of 45

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