The Bible can be a tough book to swallow. Strange stories, descriptions of an unseen God, a man rising from the dead? Perhaps we should just go ahead and conclude as Mark Twain did: “[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”1
Here’s the key question: Can we trust the Bible? Can we genuinely believe what it says about history, life, truth, and God? Can it stand up to the scrutiny of historians, scientists, and common sense? Or is it no different than books about Zeus or Santa Claus?
We should admit that little written about the past can be definitively proven as “true.” Did Abraham Lincoln really give the Gettysburg Address exactly as newspapers reported he did on November 19, 1863? Maybe what he said was different than the manuscript prepared and given to journalists. Perhaps one reporter got the date wrong and the mistake has been propagated ever since. It’s even possible that Lincoln was sick that day and a presidential impersonator delivered the speech for him. Generations later, no one can know the truth with absolute certainty. But we do not swim in a sea of uncertainty.
When considering what is true, we examine evidence. And outlandish conspiracy theories aside, the evidence gives us confidence that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, as it is recorded.
So can we trust what the Bible says in this same way? Is the Bible true? Let’s examine the evidence to see if it holds up.
Archaeology and Manuscripts
Let’s begin with archaeology. Numerous archaeological discoveries have validated the accounts we read in the Bible. For example, an Egyptian inscription describes a battle between Egypt and Israel in roughly 1209 BCE in the land of Canaan, much like the Bible portrays. Other inscriptions attest to the Israelite kings mentioned in the Old Testament.
Indeed, so many documents from ancient Egyptian, Hittite, Canaanite, Assyrian, and Babylonian cultures parallel accounts from the Old Testament that one prominent Jewish archaeologist stated, “No archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements made in the Bible.”2
The ancient manuscripts of the Bible itself also support its reliability. Of course, none of the original documents of the books of the Bible exist; we have only copies of copies of copies. But this is true of all ancient documents; the clay tablets and papyri that were used for writing simply did not last. As a result, textual scholars establish the credibility of ancient documents based on the nature and number of copies that have been discovered and how many years the earliest copies are removed from the original works. In this, the Bible has no parallel.
For almost every other ancient document—from the works of Plato and Aristotle to the greatest Roman historians—the distance between the earliest copy discovered and the original works is between 700 and 1,450 years. For the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls are removed from their original texts by less than 500 years. Two manuscripts that contain almost the entire New Testament have been found and dated to 300 years from their originals. And one fragment from the book of John dates to only 40 years of separation from its original text. There is simply no comparison with any other ancient work of literature.
There are also secular literary works from the first century CE that corroborate the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus. Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote about Jesus’ life, teaching, and death under Pilate’s governorship in his work Antiquities of the Jews. A Roman historian named Tacitus also described Jesus’ death and the subsequent Christian movement in his Annals of Imperial Rome.
One early Christian, Justin Martyr, wrote a letter to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius in 150 CE to ask him to spare Christians from persecution. In his letter, Justin Martyr refers to Jesus’ death and suggests that the emperor verify its fact by referring to official Roman records—specifically, the Acts of Pontius Pilate. To date this document has not been found, but it’s unlikely that Justin Martyr would publicly ask the emperor to consult these records if he was not confident they actually existed.
But aren’t there contradictions in the Bible? And doesn’t that prove that the Bible is sometimes wrong or untrue?
With an understanding of ancient languages, literary genres, and cultural context, good explanations can be found for why passages sometimes appear to be contradictory. And many readers actually point to these inconsistencies as evidence of the Bible’s authenticity and reliability. Contrived works simply don’t contain such qualities.
Some readers also struggle with the scientific accuracy of the Bible. Of course, biblical language was not meant to be scientifically precise. For example, ancient writers spoke of the sun rising and setting, just as we do today. But technically speaking, the sun doesn’t rise or set; the earth revolves on its axis and so reveals or hides the sun. However, it would be unfair of us to impose modern scientific standards on ancient authors who used common language to describe what they observed.
On a similar note, some find it difficult to accept supernatural miracles. But if God did create the universe and its laws, he certainly has the right to bend those laws or invoke higher laws if it suits him. The question is whether we believe he can.
The Main Point
The issue of whether the Bible can be trusted is important. And in light of the evidence examined, many readers have concluded that the Bible is indeed trustworthy and reliable. But we must exercise caution. When we reduce the Bible to evidence and proofs—as critical as those are—it’s easy to miss its grand story: God’s love for and redemption of humanity.
Ultimately, many people find meaning and purpose in this story because it draws us in, speaks to our lives, and nourishes our souls. And maybe more than anything, this is why millions of people throughout history have concluded that the Bible is not only trustworthy but vitally important in their lives.
- Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, eds., The Bible According to Mark Twain (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 227.
- Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev (New York: Farrar, Strous and Cudahy, 1959), 136. For much more detail, see Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
- Photo Credit: Aleshyn_Andrei / Shutterstock.com.