Is the Bible historically reliable?

Is there archaeological evidence supporting the accuracy of biblical texts?

Gerhard Pfandl, phd, is a retired associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Is the Bible historically reliable?1

Christians are so often confronted, especially by popular culture, with challenges to the historical accuracy of the Bible. Some big name scholars have appeared on television with various theories about the reliability of scriptural history, and, in almost all cases, they chal­lenge it. From the Exodus to the resurrection of Jesus, nothing is sacred to these critics.

Thus, several questions are raised: How reliable, historically, is the Bible? What reasons do we have for trusting in the accuracy of the biblical texts? These are the questions this article will look at.

The value of the Dead Sea Scrolls

In early 1947, a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammad was searching for a lost goat. He tossed a stone into a hole in a cliff on the west side of the Dead Sea, about eight miles south of Jericho. To his surprise, he heard the sound of shattering pottery. Investigating, he discovered several large jars containing leather scrolls wrapped in linen cloth on the floor of the cave. Because the jars were carefully sealed, the scrolls had been preserved and were in excellent con­dition. They were evidently placed there before the fall of Jerusalem, in A.D. 70, making them at least 1,900 years old.

The young shepherd had found what has come to be called the Qumran Scrolls, more commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls­ the most important archaeological discovery of the twentieth century.

Until the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls, the oldest Old Testament manuscripts were a fragment of the Ten Commandments (Nash Papyrus), dated to the first century B.C.; a few biblical fragments from the Cairo Geniza (a synagogue storeroom) dating to the fifth century A.D.; and Hebrew texts from the ninth to the eleventh century A.D.

The oldest existing complete Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament, the Leningrad Codex, comes from the first decade of the eleventh century A.D. The great importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, comes from the fact that some of them date back to the second century B.C., only about 300 years after the last book of the Old Testament was completed.

Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now have a complete manuscript of the Hebrew text of the book of Isaiah and fragments of most of the other biblical books, all of which are more than 1,000 years older than any of the other known manuscripts. Of even greater significance is the detailed closeness of the Isaiah Scroll (ca. 125 B.C.) to the Hebrew text of Isaiah 1,000 years later. This demonstrates the unusual accuracy of the copyists of the Scripture over that period.

Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations of spelling.2

Thus, we now know that our present Old Testament text, based on the Leningrad Codex, is practically identical with the Hebrew text in use at the time of Jesus. There is, there­fore, no reason to doubt that what the authors of the Old Testament wrote is substantially the same as what we have in our Bibles today.

No other ancient writings com­parable to the Old Testament have been transmitted so accurately, mainly because the Jewish scribes treated God’s Word with the greatest imaginable reverence. They devised a complicated system of counting the verses, words, and letters of the text to safeguard against any scribal slips. Any scroll not measuring up to these rules was buried or burned.

The transmission of the New Testament

What, though, about the New Testament? What evidence do we have regarding the accuracy of the texts we have?

For starters, all of the New Testament books were written during the second half of the first century: Galatians and the two letters to the Thessalonians around A.D. 50, and John’s Gospel and the book of Revelation between A.D. 90–100.

As with the Old Testament, all of the New Testament autographs (original manuscripts) have been lost. However, because the New Testament books were the most frequently copied and widely cir­culated books in antiquity, we have today more than 5,000 known Greek New Testament manuscripts. No other book in antiquity even begins to approach such a large number of extant manuscripts. In comparison, The Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 surviving manuscripts. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the thirteenth century.3

The manuscripts of the New Testament

The earliest manuscript among the more than 5,000 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is written on a small fragment of papyrus (called P52) from around A.D. 130, containing portions of John 18:31–33, 37, 38.

The Chester Beatty papyri (named after their original owner) come from the second and third centuries, and they consist of papyri containing portions of all four Gospels and Acts, almost all of Paul’s epistles, the book of Hebrews, and Revelation 9–17. From the same time period, we have the Bodmer papyri (also named after their owner), which contain the Gospels of Luke and John, and the letters to Jude and 1 and 2 Peter. These papyri all come from Egypt, where the dry climate helped preserve them.

The most complete New Testament manuscripts, written on vellum (parchment), come from the fourth century: (1) Codex Sinaiticus (A) discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf in St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, comes from the middle of the fourth century and contains the entire Greek New Testament. (2) Codex Vaticanus (B) from the Vatican Library, is dated slightly earlier than Sinaiticus and contains the New Testament up to Hebrews 9:14. On textual grounds, Codex Vaticanus is considered the most valuable of all existing New Testament manuscripts. Three other important manuscripts are Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Beza, and Codex Ephraemi from the fifth century.

In addition to the approxi­mately 3,200 manuscripts, which are continuous text manuscripts, we have another 2,200 lection­ary manuscripts. Lectionaries are manuscripts in which the text of the New Testament books is divided into separate pericopes (sections), and are arranged according to their sequence as lessons appointed for the church year.4 While a few of these lectionaries go back to the fourth century, the majority were written after the eighth.

New Testament variants

Though no body of literature in history enjoys such a wealth of ancient manuscripts as the New Testament, this fact produces its own problems: the more manuscripts, the greater the textual variations created by scribal mistakes. If a scribe were listening to a dictation, he could make mistakes with words that sounded alike; if he was copying from a manu­script, he could mistake a word for another word that looked like it. Or his eyes could jump from one word to another word with the same ending, and thus a portion of the text could be left out or written twice.

The evidence from archaeology

However, despite the many vari­ant readings in the manuscripts, none affect any point of Christian faith and practice. The English clas­sical scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon stated, “It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.”5

Besides all the evidence from the Bible itself, we have the witness of archaeology. Though archaeol­ogy cannot prove the spiritual truths of the Bible, it can illuminate and clarify the historical circumstances of numerous passages and thereby validate the historicity of many of the events recorded in Scripture. Among the most important discoveries of archaeology that support the historical reliability of Scripture are the following:

1. The Hammurabi Stele (ca. 1700 B.C.) was found by French archaeolo­gists in the winter of 1901–1902 at Susa, the biblical Shushan (Dan. 8:2), and is now exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It contains about 280 laws, many of which are strikingly similar to the Mosaic laws:

  • Hammurabi 14: If a citizen kidnaps and sells a member of another citizen’s household into slavery, then the sentence is death.
  • Exodus 21:16: “ ‘He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.’ ”6
  • Hammurabi 196 and 197: If a citizen blinds an eye of an official, then his eye is to be blinded. If one citizen breaks a bone of another, then his own bone is to be broken.
  • Exodus 21:24: “ ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.’ ”

The discovery of the Hammurabi Stele and other ancient law codes disposed of the old critical view that the laws of the Pentateuch could not have come from the time of Moses.

2. The Merneptah Stele (ca. 1200 B.C.) was found in the mortuary temple at Thebes, published in 1897, and today exhibited in Cairo. The stele celebrates Pharaoh Merneptah’s (1213–1203) victory over rebellious forces in his Asiatic possessions, and contains the earliest reference to the people of Israel in the ancient world.

3.  The Moabite Stone (ca. 850 B.C.) is exhibited in the Louvre Museum. In 1868, an Arab sheikh at Dhiban showed German missionary F. Klein an inscribed slab that was three feet, ten inches high; two feet wide; and ten inches thick. German and French officials showed interest in the stone. A French orientalist, Clermont-Ganneau, was able to obtain a “squeeze” (a papier-mâché casting) of the inscription. This was fortunate because the Arabs, realizing that they had something valuable, broke it into pieces. The fragments were then carried away to bless their grain. Not all the pieces have been recovered, but the inscription has been restored. It recounts the story of the Moabite king Mesha’s rebellion against the king of Israel, and also supplements the account of Israel’s relations with Moab as recorded in 2 Kings 3.

Moabite Stone: Omri, ruler of Israel, invaded Moab year after year because Chemosh, the divine patron of Moab, was angry with his people. When the son of Omri succeeded him during my reign, he bragged: “I too will invade Moab.” However, I defeated the son of Omri and drove Israel out of our land for­ever. Omri and his son ruled the Madaba plains for forty years.

2 Kings 3:4, 5: “Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheepbreeder, and he regularly paid the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams. But it happened, when Ahab died, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.”

4 . The Black Obelisk o f Shalmaneser III (ca. 840 B.C.) was discovered in 1846 by A. H. Layard at Nimrud and exhibited in the British Museum. It shows the Israelite king Jehu paying tribute to the Assyrian king and provides extrabiblical evidence for the domination of Assyria over Israel as well as the existence of Jehu as the king of Israel. “ ‘Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place’ ” (1 Kings 19:16).

5. The Tel Dan Stele (ninth or eighth centuries B.C.) is a black basalt stele erected by an Aramaean king in northernmost Israel containing an Aramaic inscription to commemorate his victory over the ancient Israelites. Only portions of the inscription remain, but clearly legible is the phrase “house of David” (1 Sam. 20:16). Joram, the son of Ahab (2 Kings 8:16), also appears in the inscription. This is the first time that the name David has been recognized at any archaeological site. Like the Moabite Stone, the Tel Dan Stele seems typical of a memorial intended as a sort of military propaganda.

6. The Babylonian Chronicles (sixth century B.C.) are clay tablets that present a concise account of major internal events in Babylon. They describe the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C. (Zeph. 2:13, 15), the battle of Carchemish and the submission of Judah in 605 B.C. (2 Kings 24:7; Dan. 1:2), the capture of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:10–17), and the fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 B.C. (Isa. 45:1; Dan. 5:30). In connection with the fall of Babylon, the chronicles refer to Belshazzar (Dan. 5:1, 2) who was coregent with his father Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon.

7. The Pontius Pilate Inscription (first century A.D.) was found in 1961 in the theater of Caesarea Maritima, the city of Pilate’s residence in Palestine. Among the few lines still legible are the words Pontius Pilate Prefect of Judea. The inscription is the first archaeological evidence for Pilate before whom Jesus was tried and condemned to death (Matt. 27:2, 11–26).

The evidence from prophecy

The purpose of prophecy is not to satisfy men’s curiosity about the future but to reveal important facts about God’s nature–His foreknowl­edge, His control over all the nations, and His divine plans for His people. In addition, fulfilled prophecies are an important evidence for the inspi­ration and trustworthiness of God’s Word. The two prophecies explained below are representative of the many prophecies found in the Old and New Testaments.

Daniel 2. The book of Daniel was written in the sixth century B.C., but its prophecies provide evidence for the fact that history remains under God’s control. Daniel interprets the image in chapter 2 as four suc­cessive world empires, beginning with Babylon as the first empire (v. 38). The fourth empire would be followed by many smaller king­doms or nations symbolized by the ten toes (vv. 41–43). These nations would continue until God’s kingdom, symbolized by the rock “ ‘cut out without [human] hands’ ” smashing the image to bits (v. 34), would be established on the earth (v. 44).

This prophecy found a remark­able fulfillment in history. Babylon was succeeded by three other world empires—Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome—and then Rome was divided up into many smaller kingdoms that still exist in Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea. The only part of the prophecy still unfulfilled is the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Micah 5:2. According to the prophecy in Micah 5:2, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. The Gospels tell us that although the parents of Jesus lived in Nazareth, because of a census in the Roman Empire, Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ances­tral hometown, where Jesus was born (Luke 2:4–7).

Conclusion

While the Bible is self-authenticating, that is, the books of Scripture themselves testify to their God-inspired truth, the manuscript evidence as well as the archaeological and prophetic evidence confirm the historical reliability of Scripture. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other manuscript finds have demonstrated the textual reliability of the Bible; and the many archaeological discoveries support the historical reliability of Scripture.

Finally, the fulfillment of Bible prophecies confirms the Bible’s claim that “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).

Notes

1 This article was adapted from a book by the author, Gerhard Pfandl, ed., Interpreting Scripture (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2010).

2 Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 25.

3 Charles Leach, Our Bible: How We Got It (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), 145.

4 Ibid., 163.

5 Frederic Kenyon, The Story of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967), 113.

6 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version.


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Gerhard Pfandl, phd, is a retired associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

September 2012

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