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Q Is the Bible reliable?

A First of all, God is looking for faith, according to Hebrews 11:6: “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” But it is not blind faith; there can be evidence. After all, the Gospel of John bases faith on “signs“ (20:30-31). God, the Bible, and biblical Christianity cannot be proven 100%. God always leaves skeptics a way out. Actually, the Bible is it's own best evidence. But let's look at a number of issues.

Lewis Sperry Chafer, former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, said that the Bible was “not such a book a man would write if he could, or could write if he would.” All you need do is read a fairly good sized portion of it to see that it could not have been put together by “village idiots or lunatics.” On the other hand, the Apostle Paul said, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). So no one can understand the Bible without personally knowing God who is its author. Humans wrote the Bible, but they wrote down either what God specifically told them to write or what He lead them to write. They used their own personalities and style, but He guided the words. 2 Peter 1:20 says, “for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

But, of course, will anyone believe this? I don’t know if anyone ever believes it if someone just tells them. I think more often people come at the Bible looking for an answer to their sin problem and, when they find the answer in the Bible, they are so impressed by how it meets their need that they are, at the same time, convinced of the truth and reliability of the Bible. You, however, have asked a fair and honest question, and I will attempt to answer it. I would also encourage you to study the page “How To Know You Are Going To Heaven” on the web site. It may answer more important questions for you.

Whole books have been written on the reliability of the Bible so all I will be able to do is hit the highlights. If you would like to really study this issue, I would recommend Josh McDowell’s “New Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” available through various online bookstores. Another resource I have used is Boa and Bowman's article at bible.org: “Presenting Evidence That Demands a Verdict.”

First of all, just consider some facts. The Bible was written over a period of 1500 years by 40 plus human authors from various countries on three continents (Asia, Africa, Europe) in two languages (Hebrew and Greek). In spite of all that, it has a masterful unity that defies logic. No contradictions have ever been proven, in spite of efforts by thousands of skeptics and some of the finest minds ever. From first to last, the Bible speaks on the same unified theme: God glorifying Himself by redeeming sinful mankind.

One major proof of the reliability of the Bible is the accuracy of its texts. In the Old Testament we benefit from the tremendously high regard in which the Hebrews held the written word of God. They copied texts so carefully that they counted the letters and identified various points. If the copy was off by one letter, they threw it away and started over! As a result, the great Isaiah scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1948 is one thousand years older than the oldest copy of Isaiah in existence prior to 1948 yet is almost exactly the same! And this puts the text that modern Bibles are based on at about 100-200 B.C., only 500 years or so after Isaiah's time. The manuscripts of Daniel found at Qumran accomplished the same result, putting the foundation for the book of Daniel at only about 350 years from the actual events about which Daniel wrote.

The New Testament, according to Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary, who is one of the leading New Testament textual experts in the world, is based on approximately 5,800 Greek manuscripts and tens of thousands of early versions in other languages. Many of the manuscripts are fragments but a number are complete and the average page length is 450. Quotes from the early church writers also provide substantiation of the text of the NT and they may number as much as a million. They have not been completely catalogued yet. This is what Wallace calls “an embarrassment of riches.”

Many skeptics make a great deal of the fact that there are about 400,000 variants between these manuscripts. Wallace characterizes the variants with the following breakdown. The vast majority, accounting for at least 75% of all variants, are spelling and nonsense readings—mistakes in copying that don't make sense in the language. These do not affect the meaning of the text, obviously. The next smaller group are differences that can't be translated, synonyms, and word order. These also do not affect our understanding of the text. The next smaller group are variants that would affect the meaning but are not viable. That is, for instance, perhaps there is only one manuscript with a particular variant or some other reason it is not a viable option. Clearly these do not affect the meaning of the text because they are not good witnesses to the text. The last group consists of variants that do affect the meaning of the text and are viable—that is they exist in plenty of manuscripts, etc. But these variants only make up less than 1% of all textual variants! And what is more, they do not call into question any essential doctrines or practices—only interpretations of particular passages.

Now, compare this testimony to the New Testament text with works of secular ancient literature. The Iliad, for instance, has more manuscript evidence than any other piece of ancient literature and that is only 643 compared to the NT’s 5,800 Greek manuscripts. The Iliad has about 5% of its text in doubt. That is a great deal compared to the NT’s one per cent. There are only a handful of copies of any other piece of ancient literature. Name Plato, Tacitus, Caesar, Pliny, Sophocles, and Aristotle and you’ll find no more than 20 copies. And the disputed readings are even worse. Even Shakespeare's plays, 500 years old or so, have a hundred or so disputed readings in each of the 37.

Another aspect of reliability of any text is how close are its manuscripts to the actual date of composition. I have already noted how close the Isaiah and Daniel manuscripts are to the actual time of writing. In the New Testament we have one fragment of the Gospel of John dated at least 130 A.D. and perhaps earlier, and it is from Egypt, not Asia Minor, where the Gospel was written. There is also a recent discovery of a fragment of the gospel of Mark that is about the same age. Other small portions exist dating from 150-200 A.D. and even the earliest complete manuscripts are from about 325-350 A.D. The vast majority of of manuscripts date into the year 900 or so A.D. with some up to the time of Luther. How does this compare with the famous secular ancient manuscripts? Of the same authors mentioned earlier, their EARLIEST copies date no sooner than 500 years after the time of writing! Most are 1500 years after the time of writing. It is clear from the normal tests for reliability of early manuscripts that if the New Testament is to be rejected, then all the well-known secular ancient manuscripts must be rejected even more strongly.

The quality of the eyewitness testimony is another proof for the reliability of the New Testament. The gospels were written by eyewitnesses or those who relied on eyewitnesses, the number of eyewitnesses is astonishing, and their evident sanity is verified by the diversity of eyewitness accounts (for instance, of the resurrection and later appearances of Christ). The quality of the NT author’s testimony is verified by their historical statements. No error of history has been found in the New Testament.

The other major proof of the reliability of the Bible is archaeology. Nelson Glueck is a renowned Jewish archaeologist and is not a believer in the inspiration of the Bible, yet he has said, “no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.” William F. Albright, a skeptic at the beginning of his career, has said, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.” Someone once said that with every turn of the archaeologist’s spade the Bible was confirmed. Here are some examples:

In general, approximately 25,000 geographic localities of the Bible have been confirmed by archaeology.

Archaeological findings confirmed that movement of the Hebrew patriarchs out of the land of Mesopotamia as Genesis states.

There is archaeological confirmation of the Horites, in Esau’s genealogy in Genesis, as prominent warriors of that time. The Hittites, formerly questioned as a real nation by critics, have been discovered in what is now Syria.

The name Abraham is verified in Babylonia for the time of his existence. Also the social customs the Bible describes can be attested by archaeology in patriarchal times.

Articles such as those described in the Bible, such as the brass mirrors of the laver in the tabernacle, have been found dating to the correct period.

The New Testament findings of archaeology are even more specific. For instance, at one time the events surrounding Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus were said to be inventions or mistakes, especially the census, Quirinius as governor of Syria, and returning to one’s ancestral home to be taxed. All have now been confirmed by recent discoveries of inscriptions and papyri. On locations mentioned in Luke’s writings in Acts, Luke disagrees with the Roman historian Cicero. Monuments and other archaeological findings have proven Luke to be correct. In Romans 16:23, Paul mentions a city treasurer named Erastus of Corinth. Excavations in Corinth in 1929 found an inscription that appears to attest to this very man. Luke especially has been proven correct over and over in his use of technical terms, descriptions of government positions and place names.

Add to all this the effect the Bible has had on people, history, language and culture, its being ahead of its time on hygiene (if the Old Testament rules for disposal of human waste had been followed in the middle ages, there would have been no black plague!), and the phenomenal number of Bibles published, and you have evidence that the Bible is obviously supernatural.

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