The Bible: Historical and Archaeological Evidence
The Bible presents itself as history. Its historical validity should be judged in the same manner as that of any other ancient document. There are three tests to determine whether any ancient document can be trusted as history:
- Bibliographic Test. How many different copies exist, and how much time elapsed between the original writing and the first available copy?
- Internal Test. Does the document contradict itself?
- External Test. Does the document contradict external sources of historical or archaeological fact?
How many different copies exist, and how much time elapsed between the original writing and the first available copy? If numerous copies exist and all are essentially the same, it is likely that the original text has been preserved. The less time there is between a copy and the original, the more reliable it is considered to be. Most of the Bible was written by people who claimed to be eyewitnesses. First-hand information is the most reliable. It must be determined if the original accounts have been significantly altered or survive pretty much as written.
In most cases, relatively few copies of ancient documents exist, made long after the original. For example, there are 193 copies of the works of Sophocles. The earliest was written 1,400 years after the original autograph. This is a large number of copies compared to other ancient works of history. The New Testament, by comparison, is supported by over 24,000 different copies, the earliest of which was made only 25 years after the original. The New Testament has more bibliographic support than any other historical document of its time.
The last of the Old Testament is significantly older, written in about 450 B.C. There is less bibliographic support in terms of volume and antiquity than for the New Testament. One of the Dead Sea scrolls is a complete copy of the book of Isaiah, believed to have been copied in about 125 B.C. It is identical with the modern Hebrew Bible in more than 95% of the text. The remaining 5% are mostly variations in spelling. Because the Jews believed the Bible was God's own word, they were meticulous when making copies. Letters on each page were counted and proofread backwards and forwards. If any mistake was found, the page was destroyed and begun again.
Sir Frederick Kenyon, former director of the British Museum, said:
In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. The last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.
This test determines whether the document contradicts itself internally. The Bible was written by numerous people over a period of about 1,500 years. I fully expected to find contradictions. Many questions I noted during my first read through the Bible had to do with apparent contradictions and things that didn't make sense on the surface. I was surprised to find out that most of them could be explained or resolved by looking closely at the context and cross-references. I well remember the first time I used a study Bible to check cross references. I was amazed at the integrity I found, from cover to cover, through all the years and all the writers. That integrity and depth continues to amaze me and convince me that the Bible cannot have been written by humans on their own. Further study began to reveal patterns beneath patterns in the text. I compare it to one of those computer generated 3-D image posters that were so popular some years ago. On the surface, it may appear to be nothing but squiggly lines, but when observed correctly, images pop out that are clear and unmistakable. Once you've seen them for yourself, it is impossible to later deny that they're there, even if you can't always see them clearly. Once I became convinced there was more to the Bible than met the eye, it was more and more interesting to study. It is an intellectual challenge! The more I learn, the more amazed I am. The Bible is specific, historical, and remarkably different from other books and writings that claim to be holy or inspired (many of which I've read myself just to be sure).
The gospels are extremely consistent with one another by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it is fair to evaluate them. They are supposedly written by one careful historian (Luke) and three different eyewitnesses to the events (Matthew, Peter with Mark transcribing, and John). When eyewitness accounts agree in every detail, it is evidence of copying or collaboration. The authors of the gospels recorded information that reflected unfavorably on themselves. Untruthful witnesses tend to edit that kind of information out! The writers had nothing to gain by publicizing their work except persecution, ostracism and martyrdom.
This test is to determine whether a document contradicts external sources of historical fact. The more overlap there is with other documents written during the same time period, the more authentic a record is considered to be. The document must also be consistent with archaeological discoveries. Over the years, archaeologists have successfully used the Bible to guide them to excavation sites. Archaeologist William F. Albright said, "There can be no doubt that archeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament." Archeology cannot prove the Bible to be true. It can, however, confirm details. An author who takes care to include accurate incidental details is more credible than one who does not. Archaeologists were surprised when they discovered evidence of civilizations mentioned in the Bible, such as the Hittites, but previously assumed to be legendary.
Other written histories have confirmed the accuracy of some passages once doubted. Josephus, a Jewish historian writing around 70 A.D., mentioned not only Christ's death but his resurrection in Jewish Antiquities. He refers to Christ's brother James and the beheading of John the Baptist. One expert documented 39 ancient sources that corroborate more than one hundred facts concerning Jesus' life, teachings, crucifixion and resurrection. Jewish writers called Jesus a sorcerer, evidence that he performed miracles. Christianity took root in Jerusalem, where a mob had shouted, "Crucify him!" not long before, where there would have been eyewitnesses aplenty to debunk obvious lies.
Josh McDowell states:
After trying to shatter the historicity and validity of Scripture, I came to the conclusion that it is historically trustworthy. If one discards the Bible as being reliable, then he must discard almost all literature of antiquity. One problem I constantly face is the desire on the part of many to apply one standard or test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One needs to apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious.
I did not set out to prove or disprove the Bible. I just wanted to satisfy myself that my decisions about it were informed, not based on assumptions. I expected to become convinced it was nothing more than a compilation of human stories and man-made laws. In the end, I was convinced otherwise.
Did the Bible degrade over the centuries, copied and recopied so many times that its intended meaning was corrupted? Scholars say no. Despite all the copies that have been made over the centuries, the meaning is consistent. Original language is always more reliable than translations. I eventually acknowledged that if the Bible is from God, if it is God's love letter to humankind, God would be able to preserve it from significant corruption over time.
Related articles on this web site:
- Is Evolution True?
- Is the Bible True?
- Whatsoever Thing Are True (a book I wrote a few years after the articles above)
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony