Most children have played the “telephone game.” You know the way it works. You sit in a circle and tell your neighbor a secret. Your neighbor then whispers it to his or her neighbor. That neighbor whispers to the next neighbor and so on until the message makes it back to the first person. When the secret has made it around the circle, the one who started it tells the group both the original secret and the final message they received. The first and last secrets are rarely the same, and that’s the point of the game—to laugh over how much the message changes. Sometimes, the secret has been altered by deleting a few words that dilute the meaning. In other cases, words have been substituted that completely change the content of the original message.
Skeptics and critics of the Bible claim that duplication of the Bible from generation to generation has likewise caused it to fall victim to the “telephone game” of history. Therefore, the Bible cannot be trusted. Archaeological discoveries, however, have proven again and again that the Bible is the all-time, number-one most validated writing of antiquity.
There are few, if any, skeptics about the works of Caesar, Aristotle, or Plato. Yet the writings by these men are not nearly so validated by reliable historic manuscripts as the New Testament. For example, the time span from the original manuscript to oldest existing manuscripts of Caesar, Aristotle, or Plato range from 1,000 to 1,400 years. The time span from the original writing of the New Testament to oldest existing partial manuscripts or fragments of the New Testament, though, is only about fifty years. The oldest existing complete manuscript of the New Testament is a copy made just 225 years from the time the New Testament was originally written. Besides that, there are more manuscripts to back up the New Testament than any other work of antiquity. It is supported by 24,286 historical copies. (Footnote #4) The second-most verified work of antiquity is Homer’s Illiad, but it boasts only 643 manuscripts. By comparison, we only have ten to back up Caesar’s Gallic Wars and only three manuscripts for Plato. Josh McDowell puts this wealth of resources for the Bible in perspective: “If you destroyed all the Bibles and biblical manuscripts, one could reconstruct all but eleven verses of the entire New Testament from quotations found in other materials written within 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus Christ.” (Footnote #5)
A. T. Robertson suggests that biblical textual criticism has determined there are questions about only a “thousandth part of the entire text.” (Footnote #6) This would make the reconstructed text of the New Testament 99.9 percent free from substantial or consequential error. Hence, as
B. B. Warfield observed, “The great mass of the New Testament, in other words, has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no variations.” (Footnote #7)
So exactly how do these experts recognize when antique documents are valid? In looking at documents of antiquity to determine their authenticity and accuracy, experts apply three different tests—bibliographical, internal, and external. Let’s take a closer look at each of these tests to see how well the Bible passes each one.
The Bibliographical Test
Because we do not have the original documents, scholars must determine how reliable and accurate the copies are that we do have and what the time interval is between the original and the existing copy or copies. (Footnote #8)
To clarify our terms: a manuscript is a handwritten literary composition in contrast to a printed copy, and an original manuscript is the first one produced, usually referred to as an autograph.
There are no known autographs of the New Testament. In fact, none are needed because of the abundance of manuscript copies. (Footnote #9)
The total of Greek manuscripts alone is 5,686, and there are also more than 10,000 New Testament manuscripts in Latin. (Footnote #10)
Plenty to work with to make sure we have the “real thing.”
In another attack strategy, some critics have argued the Bible was written after the predicted events occurred, suggesting that prophecies were “faked” because they were written after the supposedly predicted events had already occurred. Such criticism, though, does not stand up to scrutiny. In the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, for instance, resides what is known as the John Rylands Fragment. This papyrus contains five verses from the Gospel of John (18:31–33, 37–38). It was found in Egypt and is dated between A.D. 117 and 138. The great philologist (a person who studies written texts to establish their authenticity) Adolf Deissmann argued that it may have been even earlier. (Footnote #11)
This discovery destroyed the idea that the New Testament was written during the second century—time for myths to grow around the truth. (Footnote #12)
A Worldview Weekend speaker and one of the most prolific defenders of the Bible is Dr. Norm Geisler who is the author of more than fifty books. Geisler notes:
An honest comparison of three observations: (1) the number of manuscripts, (2) the time span between the original and the earliest copy, and (3) the accuracy of the New Testament, all bear witness that the New Testament is the most historically accurate and reliable document from all of antiquity. If one cannot trust the New Testament at this point, then one must reject all of ancient history, which rests on much weaker evidence. So definite is the evidence for the New Testament that no less a scholar than the late Sir Frederic Kenyon could write, (Footnote #13)
“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” (Footnote #14)
The Bible overwhelmingly passes the bibliographical test.
The Internal Test
The internal test is about looking for contradictions within the document. While skeptics and critics like to point to some eight hundred “contradictions” in the Bible, a studied look at each one proves none to be genuinely contradictory at all. For instance, one of the Gospels recounts that, after betraying Jesus, the disciple Judas hung himself. In another Gospel, it says Judas fell off a cliff and his bowels broke open and his guts spilled into the field. Are these two accounts in conflict? No, they are not. It is possible for both to be true.
In Jerusalem, the traditional site of Judas’ suicide is a cliff that overhangs a field. As a result, it is easy to see that, after hanging himself, there are several possibilities as to what happened to Judas’ body:
• It rotted and fell apart, landing in the field below the cliff.
• Someone came along, cut it down, and his body dropped from the cliff into the field.
• The rope or limb eventually broke, and the body fell into the field.
Here’s another example. The books of Matthew and Mark note that when the women went to the tomb of Jesus on resurrection morning, there was an angel there. In Luke and John, it says there were two angels at the tomb. Are these contradictory statements? No! It is likely that one of the women spoke of the one angel she saw, while the other woman spoke of the two angels she saw. It is also likely that one gospel writer was focusing only on the one angel that spoke, while the other gospel writer added to the facts by mentioning that at least one of the women saw two angels.
This is not an unusual way to find an event being reported. Let’s take an example from everyday life. Jimmy DeYoung has spoken at several Worldview Weekends. If two newspaper reporters show up to cover the Worldview Weekend and take notes for writing an article about the conference, you could have two accounts that each mention different facts about the weekend. Yet they would not contradict each other. If one reporter writes that Jimmy DeYoung was on the platform speaking and goes on to give a summary of DeYoung’s remarks but does not mention that I was sitting in a chair off to the side of the stage, is that a false report? Of course not. If the other reporter writes that Jimmy DeYoung was on the stage speaking and says Brannon Howse was sitting in a chair on stage to the left of DeYoung, does that reporter’s story contradict the first reporter’s story? No again. Are these two articles by two different reporters contradictory? Certainly not. To the contrary, the very fact that they differ in some of the details actually substantiates the stories. One reporter simply chose to give more detail than the other. Only if one reporter claims that Jimmy DeYoung was speaking and that he was the only one on the stage while the other reporter’s story says Jimmy DeYoung was speaking and Brannon Howse was sitting in a chair on the stage to Kirk’s left, would you have two contradictory articles.
The gospel records that there was an angel at the tomb on resurrection morning, but it does not say “there was only one angel at the tomb.” Thus the gospel accounts that mention one angel at the tomb and the gospel accounts that mention two angels at the tomb do not contradict each other.
Remember, these are only two examples of more than eight hundred such “contradictions” the skeptics and critics point out to discredit the Bible. Each of the supposed discrepancies can be readily explained by understanding the proper way to interpret and study the events reported in Scripture.
To add a final confirmation to our discussion of the internal test, let me introduce you to Dr. Gleason Archer, an expert on the Bible and biblical criticism. Before you read what he has to say about the trustworthiness of the Bible, take a look at Dr. Archer’s resume:
As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was fascinated by apologetics and biblical evidences; so I labored to obtain knowledge of the languages and cultures that have any bearing on biblical scholarship. As a classics major in college, I received training in Latin and Greek, also in French and German. At seminary I majored in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic; and in post-graduate years I became involved in Syriac and Akkadian, to the extent of teaching elective courses in each of these subjects. Earlier, during my final two years of high school, I had acquired a special interest in Middle Kingdom Egyptian studies, which was furthered as I later taught courses in this field. At the Oriental Institute in Chicago, I did specialized study in Eighteenth Dynasty historical records and also studied Coptic and Sumerian. Combined with this work in ancient languages was a full course of training at law school, after which I was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1939. This gave me a thorough grounding in the field of legal evidences. (Footnote #15)
Dr. Archer is more than qualified to speak about the accuracy of the Scriptures. In the foreword to his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Dr. Archer offers this testimony about the internal consistency of the Bible:
As I have dealt with one apparent discrepancy after another and have studied the alleged contradictions between the biblical record and the evidence of linguistics, archaeology, or science, my confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture has been repeatedly verified and strengthened by the discovery that almost every problem in Scripture that has ever been discovered by man, from ancient times until now, has been dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the biblical text itself—or else by objective archaeological information. The deductions that may be validly drawn from ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, or Akkadian documents all harmonize with the biblical records; and no properly trained evangelical scholar has anything to fear from the hostile arguments and challenges of humanistic rationalists or detractors of any and every persuasion. (Footnote #16)
The Bible overwhelmingly passes the internal test.
The External Test
The external test asks, what is outside the text? What pieces of literature or other data, apart from the one being studied, confirm the accuracy of the inner testimony of the document?
Numerous external sources, such as non-Christian historians and archaeological discoveries, corroborate the Bible. In The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell writes that Jewish historian Josephus “makes many statements that verify, either generally or in specific detail, the historical nature of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.” (Footnote #17)
For instance, Josephus documented Daniel’s incredible predictions of the empires that would come and go. The prophet predicted years in advance the destruction of Babylon by the Medes and Persians and the establishment of the Mede-Persian Empire.
Daniel also predicted the rise of the kingdom of Greece, and that upon the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire would be divided among four generals. Daniel’s prophecies are further indication of the supernatural nature of God’s Word. Josephus documents that Daniel made these predictions years in advance of their being fulfilled. Josephus documents the existence of James the brother of Jesus and John the Baptist. He even gives a brief description of Jesus.
The external evidence for the life of Jesus Christ is so substantial, in fact, that even without the Four Gospels and using only non-Christian sources, we can confirm the Gospel accounts. According to Dr. Norm Geisler, these non-Christian sources “come largely from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Samaritan sources of the first century”:
In brief they inform us that: (1) Jesus was from Nazareth; (2) he lived a wise and virtuous life; (3) he was crucified in Palestine under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish King; (4) he was believed by his disciples to have been raised from the dead three days later; (5) his enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats they called “sorcery”; (6) his small band of disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading even as far as Rome; (7) his disciples denied polytheism, lived moral lives, and worshiped Christ as Divine. This picture confirms the view of Christ presented in the New Testament Gospels. (Footnote #18)
The evidence for the authenticity and veracity of the Bible fills thousands of books that can be readily obtained by those who truly want proof that the Bible as we know it today is a completely reliable version of the original. The teachings of Scripture simply cannot be undermined with the argument that the Bible may not be an accurate document. It passes with flying colors all scholarly tests for antique documents.
Still, there is even more evidence.
5. Josh McDowell, Christianity: Hoax or History? (Wheaton, IL: Pocket Guides, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 83–84.
6 Archibald T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1925), 22.
7 Benjamin B. Warfield, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (London: n.p., 1886), 154.
8 Norm Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Press, 2001), 254.
10 For more details on these texts see Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 285, 366; Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 30–54; and Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 70.
11 Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 268.
12 Geisler and Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations, 255–56.
13 Ibid., 258.
14 Ibid., 258, quoting Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 285.
15 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands the Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 45–46.
16 Ibid., 46.
17 Ibid., 55–56.
18 Ibid., 60, quoting Norm Geisler.