If you knew someone who had a tendency to lie, exaggerate, and just generally spread inaccurate information, would you trust that person? Probably not.
The same applies to a book. If you know the author of a book was either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting events, then why would you trust the information in that book?
Well, the Bible is a book that many critics do not trust, for it has been accused of (a) being a book filled with contradictions and errors; and (b) being a book that was written by people who lacked firsthand knowledge of the events reported on at the time.
But are these accusations true?
We’ll start by looking at whether the Bible is truly a book full of contradictions and errors by reviewing the same six interpretive principles that textual scholars use to determine if any piece of literature contains clear contradictions or errors. Then, we’ll examine whether the people who wrote the books of the Bible had firsthand knowledge of the events they reported on.
Principle 1: The unexplained is not necessarily unexplainable.
All scientific facts that we know of today, like the fact that some illnesses are caused by bacterial infections or how the law of gravity works, were once unexplained. But with curiosity, research, and the progression of time came discovery, leading at least to some of the unexplained becoming explainable.
Christian scholars apply the same principle when they are faced with what is unexplained in the Bible.
Principle 2: The context of the passage controls the meaning.
Any piece of writing can be perceived as erroneous or full of contradictions when its words are taken out of context. Therefore, it is extremely important to consider the context of any work when interpreting its meaning.
Of course, this principle also applies to interpreting the meaning of Bible passages.
Principle 3: Clear passages illuminate cloudy ones.
Sometimes a passage can seem to state a contradiction when it is loosely compared with another passage that seems related. However, when you compare the passages in their entirety or in their proper context, you can then better perceive distinctions in meaning between the two passages, leading you to form a clear interpretation of both passages.
For instance, the Bible passage, John 3:16, claims that God loves the world, while the same author in 1 John 2:15 states, “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you.” If these passages, which are written in two separate books, are perceived to be related, then there can appear to be a contradiction in the form of inconsistency between what God loves and what we are instructed not to love.
However, when both passages are read in their entirety, you can better discern that the word “world” refers to two different things. For instance, John 3:16 refers to God loving the people of the world, and 1 John 2:15 refers to resisting the harmful temptations that the world has to offer.
Principle 4: The Bible is a book for humans with human characteristics.
A textbook on history made for highschool students during the mid-twentieth century will contain characteristics that will appeal to its intended audience. For instance, the language style of the textbook would have been carefully chosen to be understood easily by highschool students of the mid-twentieth century. The Bible, because it was made for people who lived centuries ago, will also contain figures of speech, common expressions, and literary devices that would be easily grasped by the people at the time. This doesn’t mean that the Bible contains contradictions nor does it make it irrelevant for our modern times; it just means that the Bible’s style of language also needs to be considered in its proper context when interpreting its meaning.
Principle 5: An incomplete report is not a false report.
If there was a bank robbery that involved three bank robbers and a getaway driver, and one witness across the street from the incident said that they saw three bank robbers and a getaway driver while another witness inside the bank said they saw all three bank robbers but made no mention of there being a getaway driver, would that mean that one report is false? No, instead, it would mean that one report is just incomplete.
The Bible also includes instances where there were two or more witnesses reporting on the same event, but each had different points of views, and, therefore, also had slightly different reports.
Principle 6: Errors in copies do not equate to errors in the originals.
If someone were to attempt to create a series of identical copies of a painting by hand but because of human fallibility accidentally made some errors in the duplication process, would that make the original painting flawed? Absolutely not.
Well, just like the painting, the Bible has manuscript copies that also contain copying errors. However, in many cases, when earlier manuscript copies (remember, earlier manuscript copies usually have more authority than later manuscript copies) were compared with later manuscript copies, copying errors in the later copies, which played little to no role in compromising the meaning of the text, were easily distinguished from the originally intended details of the work.
Were the Writers of the Bible Even Credible?
As mentioned in the second installment of this series, How the Bibliographical, External, and Internal Evidence Tests Work, a primary source is an original source of information that is essential for testing the internal reliability of a historical document. And because writers have been known to embellish details/events in their work, more credibility is usually awarded to the writers who were geographically and chronologically close to the events they reported on. This makes sense since you are more likely to believe the words from someone who saw an event occur with their very own eyes as opposed to someone who heard about an event through other people over a long period of time.
It is important to note that the Old Testament, among many things, reveals historical events through its 39 books that led up to the birth of Christ – events that were recorded by writers who, for the most part, had firsthand knowledge of the events they gave accounts for. I say the writers “for the most part” had first hand knowledge because, well, although writers like Moses weren't around until the bronze age it is believed that he wrote the book of Genesis, whose events predated his existence. However, this is not a problem considering Moses’ Bible authorship as well as every other author of the books of the Bible produced God-inspired work, which is a whole other topic to discuss for another time.
It is also important to note that the New Testament is made up of 27 books that mostly reveal the accounts of Jesus’ life and the history of the early church and that these books were written by either eyewitnesses to the events reported on or contemporaries to the eyewitnesses.
Some critics of the Bible, however, don’t regard the authors of both the Old and New Testament as credible because they believe that the authors of the Bible weren’t close in geography or chronology to the events they wrote about.
Yet, if you read the books of the New Testament, you will often see that the writers often claimed to be eyewitnesses to the events they wrote about or, at the very least, contemporaries of the eyewitnesses.
Here are three verses from the books of John, Peter, and Luke that support the notion that the writers were indeed close to the events reported on:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” - Luke 1:1-4 (ESV)
“That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” - 1 John 1:3 (ESV)
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” - 2 Peter 1:16 (ESV)
Bold is used to emphasize phrases
Now, critics have stated that the early followers of Jesus could have just fabricated or embellished the events they reported on to fit a narrative they wanted people to believe in. This is a good point considering that, well, people do lie to have others believe a particular version of a story.
However, in response to the above point, F.F. Bruce, the late Rylands Professor of Biblical criticism at the University of Manchester, had this to say:
“The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of… firsthand testimony, and appealed to it time and again. ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.”
In other words, it would have been very difficult to spread false accounts of Jesus and the events that surrounded him when his disciples, and furthermore, many members of the general public, knew him and followed him closely. This is why so many of Jesus' disciples appealed to the audience’s knowledge of events when giving a public account as seen here:
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” - Acts 2:22
Also, please keep in mind that the disciples who appealed to the audience’s knowledge of events not only reaffirmed the validity of the said events by appealing to their audience’s knowledge, but they would have had to also been absolutely certain that what they were saying was true as they had many enemies who would have liked nothing more than to ruin their credibility by aggressively exposing their false accounts.
Other critics claim that the writers of the New Testament only claimed to have been eyewitnesses but really never observed Jesus themselves or even lived around the same time of Jesus. Well, this is why the dating of the original document is so important in supporting the reliability of a work. As mentioned in the third installment of this series, The Bible Put to the Bibliograhical and External Evidence Test, there is already a consensus among textual scholars that all the books of the New Testament were completed no later than 100 AD, affirming that the events that were recorded were done so by writers who either witnessed those events themselves or had access to people who witnessed those events in a close time period of Jesus' life.
In conclusion, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that the writers of the Bible were close in geography and chronology to the events they reported on. We have good reason to believe they had firsthand experience of the events they reported on, or, at the very least, had access to the to the people who had witnessed the events for themselves. This, in combination with ruling out that the Bible is not a book full of contradictions gives the Bible, according to textual scholars, a passing grade on the internal evidence test.
Now, of course, there are many other questions to be asked about the internal evidence test of the Bible, like how do we know for sure that the writers who wrote the New Testament are the true writers who have received credit and how do we know for sure that the Old Testament writers were credible sources themselves? Well, to that I must say that, firstly, there should be many more questions about other ancient texts considering they possess far less evidence than the Bible, yet, many of them, too, qualify as being a reliable source; and secondly, that many of the questions about the general reliability of the Bible can be answered with varying degrees of confidence based on cross-examining the breadth of archaeological discoveries and the knowledge we have of ancient cultures that goes far beyond what one book such as God-Breathed or one person such as myself can provide.
It is also important to know that through the cross-examination of the pieces of evidence that are used within the three evidence tests (bibliographical, external, and internal tests) and through your own due diligence to search for the truth about the Bible – that the questions you may have may not only be answered but that the gaps or questions that may never be filled or answered completely (because every ancient text will always have unfillable gaps or questions that might not be answered completely), may cause you to realize that the unknowns of the Bible or any other ancient text, or even any theory that is out there can be filled by making inferences that stem from the evidence and the answers that are already known.
In other words, we all need some form of faith – not blind faith – but faith supported by reason cultivated by evidence that gives us a cause to believe in the things we believe in despite not having all the answers.
You can access the final installment of this series here: Piecing It All Together.
McDowell, Josh. God Breathed: the Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture. Shiloh Run Press, 2015.