How Do We Know the Bible is True (eXclusive notes week 2)

Week 2
How Do We Know the Bible is True?
Transmission of the Text
The Bible claims to be the Word of God.  Yet that statement in itself is not good enough.  In the Public Square of ideas, to simply assert the Bible’s own claim of inspiration is circular reasoning.  As an argument it does not hold weight.  If we do try to assert the Bible’s own claim of inspiration as evidence enough, we will probably be met with arguments such as:

  1. The Bible is not unique, other religious writings claim to come from God.  This would include the Quran and the Book of Mormon as examples.
  2. There were other books of the period that were not included in the Bible.  This suggests there must have been a conspiracy of truth, an agenda that the early Christians were trying to push; namely that Jesus was the Son of God.  See Tim Keller’s The Reason for God - p101 for a good portrayal of the argument
  3. We do not have the original manuscripts, so even if we were to concede the Bible as the Word of God, we cannot be sure we have the Bible as God intended it.  How do we know the text has not been seriously corrupted?
  4. The Bible was never meant to be taken literally.  This is something Christians have pressed upon it.  In essence it is Bibliolatry to regard the Bible as inspired, innerrant, and authoritative for life.
  5. The Bible says some things that are both historically and scientifically unreliable as well as culturally outlandish.  We cannot take it seriously in “learned” circles, much less regard it as coming from God.  This argument would include things like miracles, the idea of Hell, that certain moral lifestyle choices are sinful (i.e. homosexuality), that it demoralizes women, or that it portrays a God who is harsh toward humanity.
These claims generally fit into three categories:
  • Claims that would question the Bible’s transmission (how it came from its original form to what it is today).
  • Claims that would question the Bible’s canonicity (why the 66 Books as we have them were accepted and why others were rejected).
  • Claims that point to the Bible’s difficulties (such as God as a moral monster, its historical and scientific issues, etc.)
Before we begin to address these issues, let’s simply take notice of the Bible’s uniqueness.  The Bible is unique (McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, beginning page 4):
  1. In its continuity
    1. Written over a 1,500 year span
    2. Written by more than 40 authors from all walks of life
    3. Written in different places
    4. Written at different eras of history
    5. Written on three different continents (Africa, Asia, Europe)
    6. Written in three languages
    7. Written in a wide variety of styles
    8. Yet presents a single unfolding story
    9. Ultimately focuses on a single character
  2. In its survival
    1. Written at a time in which the writing materials were extremely perishable
    2. “More early manuscripts than any ten pieces of ancient literature combined.”
    3. Attested bibliographically by more ancient books than any other work.
    4. Meticulous attention was given to it by ancient scribes highly trained in coping and preservation.
    5. The Bible has been banned, burned, and its readers persecuted more than any other book.
    6. The Bible has been subjected to more criticism and scrutiny by scholars than any other book.
  3. In its influence - no other book has so shaped history, its civilizations, and cultures (art and literature) like the Bible.  We could also add that no book has so impacted individual lives like the Bible.
We can assert, at the very least, that we are talking about a book like no other religious writing that claims to come from God.  Therefore when we try to put it on par with other works as mere literature or works of antiquity, we are making gross understatements.  While it is also true that other books claim to have been inspired by God, none of them compare with the uniqueness of the Bible.  
Two prominent examples would be the Quran and the Book of Mormon.  The Quran was written by Muhammad who claimed to get revelation from God over the span of 32 years beginning in about 610 A.D., some 580 years after Christ.  The Book of Mormon claims to be a translation of golden tablets found by Joseph Smith.  Smith claimed that the tablets were written with Egyptian Hieroglyphics and quoted the KJV 1611 Bible.  It should also be noted, no one ever saw the tablets but Joseph Smith.  It is easy to see that the Bible is truly unique.  It is not like other writings ancient and/or religious.
Having mentioned some evidences of the Bible’s uniqueness, now let’s begin to deal with claims that would attack the Bible’s transmission.  Even if one conceded that the Bible is unique and that it may have been the Word of God, how can we be certain that the form we have it in today is the Word of God?  The Quran claims that the Bible is a Holy Book, but that it has been seriously corrupted.  Many scholars believe that the text as we have it is seriously compromised.  It may contain the Word of God, but as a whole we cannot claim that it is the Word of God.  Scholars of this opinion engage in a discipline known as Textual Criticism.  The task of Textual Criticism is to try to uncover the original form of the text as compared to what we have today.  
In general then, we can say that there are two legs to this argument:
  1. That the scribes were cavalier and unreliable.
  2. That as a result the text has been so corrupted that the original text is forever lost.
The Old Testament Manuscripts
  • We do not have any original manuscripts of the Old Testament.
  • By Jewish custom they were probably destroyed out of respect for a sacred writing that was deteriorating.  They were often written on animal skin and buried once they reached a certain point of decay.  
  • There would have been another purging of the texts about the 5th century B.C. as “pointings” were added to the Hebrew consonants to form vowel sounds.  Most of the texts without the “pointings” would have been destroyed.
  • The great extent of manuscripts we have date to about the 10th Century B.C., about 1,000 years before Christ.
  • It is however, widely recognized that Jewish scribes were the elite of ancient copyists.  They were meticulously trained and saw their task as deeply sacred.
  • The manuscripts we do have were gathered from three continents (Africa, Asia, Europe).
  • Much of the copying process took place during eras of Jewish dispersion.  There was no central location of copying.
  • Despite the dispersion of the Jews, the accuracy of the manuscripts in agreement is staggering.  One scholar, observing the accuracy of the transmission of proper names (which are often butchered in ancient copying to the point they are lost or unrecognizable) said that the mathematical probability of the agreement happening by chance over three continents for such a great amount of time is 1:750,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (McDowell, 71).
  • To further substantiate the accuracy the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and recovered in Qumran between 1946 and 1956.  The texts predated any manuscript we had by more than 1,000 years.
  • The Dead Sea scrolls proved to be more than 95% identical to the existing manuscripts.  The other 5% were variations that can be considered slips of the pen or variations of spelling.  These variations do not vary the message in the slightest.
The evidence for the accuracy of the Old Testament texts, in their transmission, is indeed staggering.  When compared to other ancient texts we can say with confidence that no other books compare in accuracy of their transmission.
The New Testament Manuscripts
  • “The New Testament is the most frequently copied and widely circulated books of antiquity.” - F. E. Peters (McDowell, 34).
  • We must understand that in the way information was gathered, transmitted, and distributed “an original” was not as important to the ancients as it seems to be to us.  Important documents were revered not so much in their preservation as they were in their multiplication.
  • There are @5,600 New Testament Greek manuscripts.  We should note that none of these are complete copies of the NT, but are pieces and fragments of NT books.
  • There are over 10,000 Latin copies and 9,300 other early versions.
  • This gives us more than 25,000 ancient copies of the New Testament in various languages from various places.
  • Homer’s Iliad is the second most copied work of antiquity.  We have only 643 manuscripts the oldest dating to the 13th century.
  • What we can say about the New Testament is that it was copied:
    • Early - we have manuscripts that date to the 2nd century
    • Often - we have more than 5,600 Greek manuscripts
    • Widespread - the manuscripts, like the Old Testament come from three continents and give evidence the NT was widely circulated.
  • We have quotations of every part of the New Testament as early as the first century.  We have extensive quotes of the books of the New Testament by 2nd and 3rd generation Christian leaders.  This is important because it helps us to see that the texts not only existed, but it shows us that they existed as we have them.  This will also become an important point as we examine canonicity.
  • When compared with the stories of how ancient texts were treated and copied, the survival of the New Testament is nothing short of miraculous.  (Read Stephen Grenblatt’s The Swerve for a good background in the transmission of ancient writings).
In Comparison (McDowell, 38):

Date Written
Earliest Copies
Time Gap
Number of Copies
800 B.C.
c. 400 B.C.
400 yrs
480-425 B.C.
c. AD 900
1350 yrs
460-400 B.C.
c. AD 900
1,300 yrs

400 B.C.
c. A.D. 900
1,300 yrs

300 B.C. 
c. A.D. 1100
1,400 yrs
Gallic Wars
100-44 B.C.
c. A.D. 900
1,000 yrs
History of Rome
59 B.C. - A.D. 17
4th century partial, whole 10th century
400 yrs (partial) 1,000 yrs (whole)
1 partial
19 copies
A.D. 100
c. A.D. 1100
c. 1,000 yrs
Pliny Secundus
Natural History
A.D. 61-113
c. A.D. 850
c. 750 yrs.
New Testament

a.D. 50-100
114 - fragment
200 books
250 most of NT
325 complete NT
+50 yrs
100 yrs
150 yrs
225 yrs
In Conclusion we can say:
  1. The Bible meets greater tests of scrutiny than any other ancient book.
  2. We have more evidence for the accuracy of transmission of the Bible than any other book.
  3. The historical allegations that ancient copyists were unreliable may be true in some contexts, but they become pure historical fabrications when applied to the process applied to the transmission of Scripture.
  4. The loss of the originals does not cause us to doubt our faith.  Instead we see the marvelous process of transmission gives us greater faith that what we have is reliable.  It is easier to construct the originals from the numbers of manuscripts than it would be to believe that one surviving manuscript was the original.


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