Over the years, many skeptics and non-theists have discredited the Bible as being unreliable. Sometimes it appears they have staggering evidence to back their claims. One fact we must establish before moving on with this topic is: there is barely an ancient writing that hasn’t come under attack concerning its authenticity and accuracy. Nevertheless, there are some tests an ancient text must pass to be accorded some respect in academic circles. Some of these will be discussed as follows and it is my sincerest prayer that every reader weighs the evidence presented with unprejudiced views.
When I was young, I used to play this game popularly known by Americans as “telephone”. The rules were very simple: a friend whispered a phrase/sentence into the ears of another friend quickly and this circulated among us until the last person revealed what was said to him to the hearing of everyone. If you’ve ever played this game before, you can tell how easily the message – more often in an amusing manner- gets distorted during the retelling process. “Life must be lived as play” can easily turn into something else like “He bites snails” (This actually happened during a Global Gossip Game contest in 2012). Just like any other game, the goal is to have fun and as such does not require anyone to be strict with their speech and listening skills. As a matter of fact, it needs all the necessary elements to make it exciting—even if it means distorting the messages on purpose!
Could it also be that the Bible is a product of nothing but nonsense arising from this whisper-down-the-lane child’s play? Well, let’s find out, shall we?
Back in those days, the art of memorization (a common cultural practice in ancient times) was the means by which information was transmitted. There was nothing like photocopiers, printers or scanners. To be frank with you, I got uneasy the first time I learned that the Rabbis memorized the whole Old Testament text. How could they have possibly done that let alone be confident to reproduce them in their purest form? And even if they did so, wouldn’t they have made some errors such as misspellings, inclusions, omissions or repetition of words during the recounting of any of the stories? Now, don’t be too quick to draw conclusions. First of all, what we fail to realise is we make a big categorical error when we judge their art of memorization by our modern standards. Just like any other work that has come down to us from antiquity, there was much flexibility in terms of writing and storytelling back in those days. Nevertheless, certain ‘landmarks’ during storytelling were very crucial and couldn’t be altered in any way. If say a Rabbi erred along an untouchable point in the process of recounting an event, his listeners would prompt him of those mistakes and make sure they were corrected immediately. This was done to maintain the integrity of messages passed down to others. Take the Old Testament for example. The Masoretes—Jewish scribes who took great care in copying the Hebrew Bible—discarded an entire manuscript if they found any error after counting the number of letters, words and lines as well as determining the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament.
Because of the strict measures Scribes put in place to ensure the preservation of these materials, the variations (or ‘variants’) found in the Old Testament are very few. The New Testament however has 400,000 variations as we speak. Four hundred thousand sounds scary but let’s find out what variations or ‘variants’ are and how they are counted briefly. Daniel Wallace, Senior Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, defines a variant as ‘the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts that disagrees with a base text.’ So that if for instance a Scribe omits the word ‘Lord’ while the standard text he’s copying from reads as ‘Lord Jesus’, that omission of the word ‘Lord’ is counted as one variant (check the ‘footnotes’ section of your Bible to learn more about these variants). With that said, many scholars have argued out so strongly that NONE of the Christian doctrines have been affected by any of these variants located in both the OT and NT. Let me quickly add that though no credible scholar confirms that the copies we have today are a 100% reflection of what the original says, they do attest to the fact that these copies are 99.5% pure. In addition to this figure, the New Testament alone has over 24,000 existing manuscripts. If you are interested in knowing the significance of this figure, allow me to match this value up against another popular ancient writing—Plato’s ‘Tetralogies’. There are currently only 7 surviving copies! Yet Plato is held in high esteem by so many people (especially in academia). If you can confidently declare a less preserved ancient material like Plato’s as historically trustworthy, how much more the New Testament with 24,000 existing copies? Also the biographies of Alexander the great were also written 400 years after his death – but they are accepted as credible even in academia. Meanwhile the last gospel – the gospel of John – was written 70 years after Jesus’ death. You just have to admit that the Bible is unrivaled in its accuracy and number of existing copies when compared to other classical, historically trustworthy manuscripts.
Most of the arguments leveled against the bible concerning its accuracy probably stem from the problem of translating from one language to another. This is a huge Linguistic problem all over the world. There is no language on earth that can be translated into another one perfectly. It just doesn’t happen. While you are devising an argument against this fact, try translating ‘Photosynthesis’ directly into Twi or your local dialect. You will find that it is impossible to find a word that perfectly describes the reality of photosynthesis in Twi, so then you would have to resort to the use of a sentence or a phrase to achieve the purpose of translation. This happened in the translation of the bible and those who did it did a great job considering the herculean task it is. It is true that the translations do not match verbatim with the original text in its original language. Nevertheless, it does not affect the Bible’s message in any way because authentic manuscripts are still in existence. Now let’s go back to the whisper-down-the-lane game; is it acceptable to question the credibility of the original message because it has been distorted by the method of transmission… especially when the original message is still in existence and people know it? Certainly not! Between 1946 and 1956 a bunch of scrolls were discovered in caves that overlooked the dead sea; thus they were called the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were 981 in all and some of them were of the apocryphal stock. The book of Isaiah was discovered amongst them too. NEWS FLASH, when the Isaiah Scroll was compared to the one we have in our bibles now, there wasn’t much of a difference. This is exactly the point I have been making all this while: there may be some petty errors here and there because of the the problem of translation, but this doesn’t discredit the bible in anyway.
Some of the errors are petty; some aren’t… too… petty. There are some seemingly major errors and obvious interpolations in the bible. For example, the story of Jesus Christ and the adulterous woman. Apparently, from the oldest and most revered manuscripts, the story was not found in John’s Gospel. It is believed to have been inserted in there at a later time by someone – probably a scribe. Also in 1John 5:7 there is an obvious interpolation there. Older manuscripts do not contain any reference to the reality of the trinity in that verse. It must have been added at a later time. So even in the Amplified Bible, that portion is in italics and the footnotes make it clear to the reader that it wasn’t part of earlier manuscripts. These are faith-shaking findings because they sort of question the credibility of the entire bible as the inspired Word of God. But is that the case? Certainly not! Concerning the story of the adulterous woman, scholars believe that the purpose for which it was inserted in that portion of the bible was to make some emphasis. People thought Jesus’ reaction was rather too mild because he asked the woman to go and sin no more. They didn’t know that The Messiah was introducing all of us to his mind-boggling Grace. So people didn’t like that story; they would rather Jesus had judged the woman harshly. Therefore it is believed that later manuscripts included the story just to reiterate the significance of the story to the new era of Grace. The presence or absence of these two interpolations (and another one at the ending of Mark) does not cause any damage to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, some are of the view that they should be relegated to the margins or omitted completely from the bible. This sounds reasonable enough.
The bottom line is, none of these interpolations are false; they are both true and consistent with Christian doctrine but have been inserted in those portions of scripture. So they don’t in anyway alter the original message of the bible. Inspiration doesn’t come with language, it comes with the message. It is the writer who chooses how to put it across. So far as the message is consistent with the full counsel of scripture, it is still God-inspired writing. However, the gospel isn’t bound by language barriers, because the inspiration came with the message and not a language.
Written By: Elvis Sampson and Elikplim Sabblah
References: Seeking Allah; Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi.
Can We Still Believe The Bible?, Craig L. Blomberg.
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, F.F Bruce.