If you read the previous article of this series, How I Discovered the Answer, you would have learned a little about my life story while being introduced to the three separate tests – the bibliographical, internal, and external evidence tests – that make up the historiography (investigative) process that all ancient texts must go through to be deemed reliable sources.
Most of the information included throughout this article series can be found in Josh McDowell’s book God-Breathed. Information that is not from God-Breathed will be accurately referenced. So please take a deep breath and relax as you’re about to discover how a branch of textual scholarship called textual criticism is applied, for this article will help you dig deeper into how the three evidence tests actually work.
Bibliographical Evidence Test
This test works by usually comparing the early manuscript copies of an ancient text with later manuscripts of the same text for the purpose of seeing if the text has been accurately copied. Now, the reason why the test doesn’t usually compare the original written document, which of course would be ideal, and instead uses earlier manuscript copies for a base of comparison with later copies, is because there have rarely been found any original written documents recovered from any ancient author of history. Nonetheless, not having the original written documents doesn’t automatically disqualify manuscript copies from being consistent with each other, nor does it necessarily disqualify the overall text from being a reliable source – as there are still established methods that are used to measure the level of consistency between the manuscript copies that have been found.
For instance, the following two questions are essential in assessing the consistency level between manuscript copies:
How many manuscript copies of the document have survived?
How much time has passed between the original writing and the earliest existing copy?
These two questions are formed under the reasonable belief that the more copies you have of a text and the closer the copies are in time to the original, then the easier it is to determine if the copies are trustworthy. Also, because there has never been a case where a copy of a text was found to be 100% identical (hey, human error and differences in stlye occured back then as they do today), the next ideal circumstance would be to find a copy that is nearly identical.
Moreover, it is reasonable to understand that the earlier in time the copies are, the more likely they will be close in identicalness to the original document. This usually grants earlier manuscript copies more authority than later manuscript copies. On the contrary, the later a manuscript copy is to the original document, the more likely it is that there will be deviations (differences) between the original and the later copy.
Since we will examine in a following article how the Bible fares with the bibliographical test, I believe it would be beneficial to put things into perspective right now by comparing how another ancient text measured up to this test:
Caesar’s Gallic Wars:
- The actual wars lasted between 58 BC to 50 BC.
- The original texts written on the wars were all created before 44 BC (roughly 6 years after the wars ended).
- Over 250 manuscript copies have been found, and more are still being found.
- The majority of manuscripts were copied in the fifthteenth century (over 1400 years after the wars ended).
- The earliest found manuscripts were copied in 900 AD, leaving the earliest survived copy to be made around 950 years after the wars.
According to many textual scholars, Caesar’s Gallic Wars passes the bibliographical test.
External Evidence Test
This second test works by determining whether historical data outside of the document in question confirms or contradicts the internal core message of the document.
Historical data that is considered external to the document can come in the form of historical writings or physical artifacts.
For instance, an ancient author may have quoted a passage from Caesar's Gallic Wars into one of his works or made a reference to the occurrence of the wars. Moreover, finding physical artifacts such as weapons, military armor, or human bones in a location where a battle was said to have taken place – according to the manuscripts – would also support the ancient writings, and, therefore, bolster the reliability of the historical document.
According to many textual scholars, Caesar’s Gallic Wars passes the external evidence test.
Internal Evidence Test
Does the historical text itself contain contradictions? Is there evidence that the writers gave an inaccurate report of the events?
The questions above are answered in this third and final test that works to examine whether the text’s content is consistent within itself and whether the authors can be trusted to tell the truth.
Three standards are used to answer the above questions and test the internal reliability of a text:
- Give the text the benefit of the doubt
Everyone makes mistakes and that includes writers during the ancient times. Perhaps the writer/copyist had a Freudian slip or accidentally misspelled a word. Whatever the case may be, both instances are yes, errors, but are unintentional errors that, firstly, may not affect the true meaning of the text; and secondly, can be verified as an unintentional error when you compare multiple copies of that text.
Readers can have biases just like writers can have biases. Try to read with an objective lens and not with a prejudging lens. Often our biases can cause us to prematurely discount something before giving it a fair assessment, which can include but is not limited to interpreting ambiguities as contradictions or regarding something as untrue just because we don’t agree with it on a personal level.
A simple way to give a text a fair assessment is to apply the “innocent until proven guilty” maxim to your approach.
- Freedom from known contradiction
For all ancient manuscripts, scholars who try to take an objective approach in their evaluation of texts only verify an alleged contradiction as a known contradiction once the alleged contradiction has been deemed impossible to reconcile - not difficult to reconcile - but impossible to reconcile.
Textual scholar Robert M. Horn states that just the appearance of a contradiction is not enough. Firstly, the passage must be understood properly, which means understanding the writing style of the text and its details such as words, numbers, references, idioms etc. In other words, the passage needs to be contextualized. Secondly, you must know all that can reasonably be known about the text’s subject, which is very similar to the first point. And lastly, you must be certain that new discoveries in disciplines such as textual research, archaeology, anthropology, and so on, couldn’t possibly reveal more information about the passage.
- The use of primary sources
Although primary sources, in the study of history as a discipline, are considered original sources of information, and, therefore, possess an innate quality of authority, they are not exempt from containing disinformation, commonly known today as Fake News. Unfortunately, historians, especially those from ancient times, have on occasion purposely included false information in their written works. For instance, during the first century AD, Roman historian Velleius Paterclus was a political propagandist for Emperor Tiberius and was found to have often included misleading information (rhetorical embellishment) in his work to make the Roman emperor look better than he actually was. ¹
As a measure to guard society against the disinformation found within ancient primary sources, 21st century historians have agreed to grant much more credibility to the ancient historians who were both geographically and chronologically close to the events they reported on.
Now that you have an introduction to what is included in the overall process of validating the reliability of ancient texts, we are now going to briefly but critically explore how both the Old and New Testament perform using the three evidence tests that make up the historiography process. Read on The Bible Put to the Bibliographical and External Evidence Tests.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Velleius Paterculus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Velleius-Paterculus.
McDowell, Josh. God Breathed: the Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture. Shiloh Run Press, 2015.