Christians believe the Bible speaks truth about God. But is the Bible reliable?
Nearly two billion people on earth call themselves Christians. They belong to thousands of groups and sub-groups that each differ significantly in doctrine and practice. One commonality in all these groups, however, is the conviction that the Bible is authoritative and reliable. Consider what the Catholic catechism says:
The inspired books [the Bible] teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”1
Every major denomination of Christianity affirms a similar commitment to the authority and inspiration of the Bible. They may do so with different words and emphases, but in the end all Christians look to the Bible as a source of truth about God, themselves, and what they must do in order to be in a proper relationship with God. Is their trust in the Bible well-founded? Is the Bible reliable?
Let’s first consider what it means to rely fully on someone or something. Every day we rely on things we do not fully know or understand. In fact, we put our lives on the line regularly based simply on trust.
Over the last two years I have probably taken around one hundred flights. I put my life in the hands of engineers, mechanics, pilots, air-traffic controllers, and others I do not know. Why? Because many reliable people report to me—in religious lingo, they “bear witness”—that air travel is the safest way of getting from Point A to Point B.
I don’t perform the pre-flight inspection myself to make sure the plane is air-worthy. I trust the pilots. I don’t make sure the fuel is uncontaminated. I trust the manufacturer. I don’t verify the pilots’ credentials. I trust the company that employs them.
Is my trust well-placed? Well, I’m glad to report I’ve had one hundred safe take-offs and landings.
It’s not too far-fetched to say that when it comes to some of the most important issues in life, we rely on only a few witnesses. For example, I don’t have any proof that my mother is truly my mother. As important as that is in forming who I am, I believe my mother is my mother based on only a few faithful people whom I trust. I have not had DNA tests run to prove the claim; I live my life every day depending on what a few witnesses tell me.
Likewise, I don’t have any proof that my wife loves me. She tells me she does, and she acts in ways that are consistent with love, but it could all be a ruse. But still I live every day as if it is true. I depend on it. I rely on her.
My point is this: Every day we depend on a few trustworthy people when it comes to some of life’s most important issues. We bet our lives and happiness on them—and we do so without any scientific, objective proof. Instead, we simply trust others to tell us the truth.
Whether you regard the Bible as reliable probably depends on the people you trust. There are two billion Christians who rely on the Bible to tell them the truth about God. They have staked their lives on it. They “bear witness” that it is true.
But they are not alone. There are scholars, historians, and archaeologists who have studied the Bible in depth and testify that it is trustworthy. Let’s consider what just one of these fields—biblical archaeology—has to say.
Hebrew Bible specialist Ron Hendel defines biblical archaeology as the “rigorous correlation of textual data from the Bible and material evidence from archaeology.”2 This correlation is not only possible; it helps to make sense of both the biblical texts and the material evidence. In fact, when archaeologists recover the remains of a human culture, it is best when those results can be studied alongside other ancient, roughly contemporary texts.
Dozens of magazines and journals are dedicated to biblical archaeology.3 These journals would not exist if there were not a lot of data to correlate with the remains of material culture. Archaeology helps to clarify and confirm much of what we find in the Bible, and the Bible helps to clarify and confirm much of what archaeologists discover.
Archaeologists have been digging in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia for hundreds of years. They have recovered and analyzed countless artifacts from human culture. But only 5 percent of the sites mentioned in the Bible have been excavated—and none of those sites have been exhausted. There is still a lot of work to do. This means that there are limits to what archaeology can tell us—though it does corroborate parts of the biblical text.
For example, archaeology confirms that camels were indeed domesticated during the time of Abraham as Genesis indicates (Genesis 24:10–64), but it cannot affirm that God spoke to Abram to establish a covenant with him (Genesis 12:1–3).4 Archaeology confirms that the villages of Galilee had synagogues during the time of Jesus (e.g., Luke 4:16–30),5 but it cannot affirm that on a given day Jesus preached this or that sermon there.
This fact is why written texts are inherently so important. To put it simply, archaeology can’t dig up everything that happened in the past—and it certainly can’t dig up God. Since the Bible is fundamentally about God and his actions to rescue and repair the world, archaeology by nature must remain silent on the most important parts.
But while it cannot fully prove or disprove the Bible, the more we dig up, the more the truth of the Bible’s account of people, places, and customs becomes clear.
The Bible’s Reliability
In the end, we can say the Bible is reliable as what God intended. To recognize this, we must also acknowledge what it was not intended to be. It is not a complete guide to the flora and fauna of the Holy Land. It is not a medical manual for the treatment of diseases and injuries.
If we try to make the Bible what it is not, then we violate the purpose for which God gave us the Bible in the first place. To say the Bible is reliable is a statement of faith. We cannot prove it any more than we can prove a mother’s love. Like most of the important stuff in life, we take it on faith.
This means that the Bible can be trusted as what it claims to be. No more. No less. It can be viewed as what billions of people trust it to be: a collection of books inspired by God and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”6