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. 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, this 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:

  1. How many manuscript copies of the document have survived?

  2. 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, copying errors and differences in style occurred back then too), 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 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:

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 war. And, 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:

  1. Give the text the benefit of the doubt
  1. Freedom from known contradiction
  1. The use of primary sources

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.

Citation List

  1. 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.