Friday, July 31, 2015

Bible 101, Question 3: Why are there differences in translations?

Many of the questions I get about the Bible are related to translations:
  • "What translation do you use?"
  • "What is the most accurate translation?"
  • "What's your opinion about ______ translation?" 
  • "Why is there a difference in this translation? 
Along with the spiritual gift of teaching comes a heavy responsibility, so I don't take these questions lightly. Translation differences have caused too much division in the body of Christ, and the simple fact is that this is an area where it's easy for people deeply committed to the authority of Scripture to jump to conclusions. I saw a recent post on social media about a translation that "leaves out the following scriptures", followed by a list and exhortation to check it out. Of course there was a grain of truth in that post, but there was absolutely no context to explain why some verses are disputed, nor was there an acknowledgment that any solid translation that omits those verses will include them in a footnote. And we've all heard the joke about the woman who, when asked about her Bible translation, emphatically declared that if her traditional English translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it was good enough for her!

With all this in mind, I have a little bit of the feeling that with this post I am jumping into the deep end without a life jacket. I realize many of you reading this will have firm opinions one way or another. I only ask that you receive this post in the spirit I intend it: As information that I have gathered in my own journey, that I'm sharing in the hopes it will be helpful to someone else. As always, if anything I say contradicts your pastor, please talk to him and do your own research. My overall goal in this series is to make Bible study more accessible and approachable by de-mystifying some of the big questions that sometimes cause us to keep the Word of God at a distance. If this series results in you picking up the Bible and studying it for yourself, then I have accomplished my goal.

Ok, are you ready? Let's climb up on that 10 foot ladder together and take a leap!

Textual Criticism
First, a word about textual criticism. The word "criticism" can throw people off but it is really an academic term that refers to the study of ancient documents to determine the accuracy of a word choice. It's a necessary step in the translation process when the originals are not available, as is the case with the Bible. From the first translation textual criticism has been part of the church's approach to the Bible.

Note: there is a branch of textual criticism with the goal of breaking down the Bible into parts that the researchers deem "authentic" and parts deemed "inauthentic". This is called "higher criticism" and its practitioners frequently approach the Bible more as literature than the inspired word of God. Thus, this type of criticism has bred unbelief and the elimination of many passages as "inauthentic", despite their presence in the ancient manuscripts. A summary of higher criticism is found here, but in this post I use the phrase "textual criticism" to refer to the necessary task of studying ancient documents for accuracy in translation of the inspired word of God. The phraseology is unfortunate and I use it sparingly. Please understand that "textual criticism" as used in some of the links I provide is not criticism in a negative sense, but simple applying critical thinking skills to evaluating the word of God.

Textual criticism is invaluable because of the vast number of copies of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. This summary is rather technical (this is, after all, a science) but even a quick scroll down the page will show you why there needs to be rhyme or reason to the decision-making process. We could have no faith in a translation that depended on the translator's personal whims!

When all the variations in manuscripts are compiled, four major "families" emerge (Holman 104-105 & this link):

1. Byzantine (or Majority Witness) - comprise 80% of the available texts. These texts stem from the Byzantine Empire and flourished throughout the Middle Ages. Geographically these came primarily from the Eastern Mediterranean. The earliest documents in this family are from the mid to late fourth century. While this family has the most representation, many of them are from later years and where differences in other texts occur, most of these texts agree only with each other. This is the text captured in the first printed Greek New Testament (Erasmus in 1516), and on which the King James Bible and New King James Bibles are based. While there is an understandable "majority rules" tendency among many, there are also highly legitimate reasons to question these texts. These reasons include the likelihood that earlier versions copied closer to the original were less likely to include errors, and the demonstrated tendency of scribes to incorporate any questionable passage out of a reluctance to accidentally omit a verse of legitimate Scripture.As a result this group has the most texts that are in question based on their absence in other families.

2. Alexandrian manuscripts are primarily out of Egypt and represent about 5-10% of the available texts. Most modern translations, includes NASB, NIV, and RSV, are based on these manuscripts. The earliest of these manuscripts dates to about 180 A.D. Many of its readings that vary from other texts are supported by internal evidence within the manuscripts. These texts are less consistent with each other than the Byzantine. These texts are more likely to not have the questioned texts commonly found in the Byzantine.

3. Western manuscripts, comprising about 5% of texts, were found in the Western Mediterranean. These commonly have the questionable texts. No entire translation is based on Western manuscripts, but they are used as a reference point.

4. Some scholars also recognize a "Caesarean" manuscript stemming from Caesarean but this classification is disputed.

It is important to note that, while many variants in the passages do exist, most are simple spelling or grammatical matters, word order, etc. Only about 2-5% of the text is seriously debated. No major doctrines are affected, because the Bible has a "built in redundancy" where every major doctrine is repeated throughout many chapters, books, and even testaments. For example, one disputed verse is 1 John 5:7-8. The Byzantine text as translated by the King James Version reads: For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. Most modern translations, based on the Alexandrian, read: For there are three that testify:the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. Although the verses differ because of the underlying source text, the doctrine that is in the disputed passage - the Trinity - is reflected throughout Scripture, from the first chapter of the Bible. Also, no entire books or even chapters are disputed; the largest sections are 12 verses in Mark (16:9-20) and 12 verses in John (7:53-8:11). If you are learning about these textual differences for the first time, there is absolutely no need for your faith to be shaken! 

Translation Theory
When scholars approach the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, they have to draw some conclusions. Some of their questions they ask in developing their theories include:
  • Should we trust the older texts or the texts with the most copies?
  • Does a literal word-for-word translation, or a thought-for-thought approach, or even a paraphrase, most accurately reflect the meaning of the original language? 
  • Where there are textual differences, is there internal evidence indicating why the change occurred? 
  • Is one reading more difficult to explain,  (such as an apparent contradiction) and therefore possibly something that a scribe would have tried to "fix"? 
  • Does one reading best explain the origin of the others? 
There is no one "right" answer to these questions. There are legitimate reasons for the different translation theories. For example, let's look at the "word for word" vs "thought for thought" question. Anyone who has learned a second language knows that sentence structure and word order varies between even similar languages. A literal "word for word" translation would be unreadable for anything other than scholarly purposes. Don't take my word for it. Check it out yourself in the Interlinear version of Genesis 1:1-2. The English translation appears in its most literal form possible under the Hebrew.

Obviously, then, even the most literal translations do some sort of "thought for thought"- type approach, because as you proceed through Scripture judgment calls have to be made about where certain words are placed. For example, different versions of Revelation 13:8 exist, not because of any textual differences but because of different approaches to the placement of the phrase "before the foundation of the world." Does it modify "lamb slain" or "names written in the book of life"? Or is it one of John's famous "double meaning" words, intended to apply to both? This is a decision translators make.

You and I are not Bible translators. We cannot be expected to determine our own translation theory. So what's a Bible-believing Christian to do?

Choosing a Translation
First, be aware of the translation theory behind your preferred version of the Bible. Most of the time that is found in the front matter of the Bible. Before buying a new translation, I always read the translation notes. This will explain which text family they used, or whether they looked all all the available text families. It will tell whether the translators leaned toward a word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or paraphrase approach. These notes will also tell how disputed passages are handled. Any legitimate translation will include the disputed passages in some way, either in the footnotes or in brackets within the primary text.

Second, see who was on the translation team. Some paraphrases are written by one individual; this should be clearly noted, as well as whether the individual is paraphrasing from an English translation or attempting to translate from the original language. Personally I am wary of translations by only one individual. There is too much at stake; the collective wisdom of solid believers can protect a well-meaning individual from errors. See what you can learn about the team. Are they all from the same denomination? That doesn't mean the translation will be bad, but you will want to be aware of any theological biases that might appear in their translation choices. Make sure the team includes language scholars as well as pastors or theologians. (Be wary of translations used solely by cults, however. Some of these were translated by one individual with limited knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. Often these translations will have no notes or insist theirs is the only correct one.)

Third, don't feel like you have to be a one-translation person. There are so many resources online. You can own a primary translation but consult many others for study or where your translation calls a passage into question. Remember that God inspired the original text but every translation is done by humans who are imperfect. I know some people question the need for more translations - and I agree there is a point where it is unnecessary - but since language changes, it is important that we are communicating God's eternal word in a way that people can understand at the heart level. (Just try reading Wyliffe's first English translation and you will understand why updates have to occur!)

Fourth, whatever translation you choose, please be respectful of others who prefer different translations. Individuals with high views of the inspired word of God do not intentionally "leave out" or "add to" Scripture by their translation choices. Many factors go into the decision, including familiarity with the text, the person's reading level, and much more. My father prefers the King James not because he thinks it's the best translation, but because he wants to honor the many men who died in order to bring an English translation to fruition. Please apply Romans 14 and give liberty to others in their translation choices.

Finally, always, always remember that God's word is eternal, written in the heavens. He inspired His word, He protects it, and most importantly, He wants you to understand it. You don't have to know a single bit of this information for God's word to speak to you. He is looking at your heart, whatever translation you choose.

My Preferred Translations
I hesitate to include these, because I want you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading. Also I don't want to challenge the authority of your pastor in your church's translation selection. However, since I'm asked so frequently, I will include my thoughts on translations for myself.

I lean toward the "older versions" school of thought, so the translations I use most frequently have this bent. Also, I am a big proponent of using a wide variety of translations. Each time I've read through the Bible I've used a different translation. When I prepare a lesson if I am struggling with a verse my first stop is never a Greek or Hebrew dictionary; instead, I simply google the verse and look at it in as many translations as I can find.

With that in mind, here are the translations on my shelf:

English Standard Version (ESV): The Bible my pastor uses, so I take this one to church and use it as a default when preparing lessons for our women's study.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): The study Bible I cut my teeth on. It's the one most marked up and the one I use for inductive studies.

New International Version 1984 (NIV 1984): The Bible I use for memorization. While it's less literal than ESV or NASB, it has the great benefit of being very readable and primarily in Active Voice, so it's easier to memorize.

King James Version (KJV): The first Bible I read through and the one I grew up on. Besides being a great reference because it's based on a different translation theory, it also has the great benefit of using "ye" making the plural "you" obvious in the New Testament, and also contains passages that my mind defaults to such as the Christmas Story in Luke 2.

Amplified Bible (AMP): Based on the Byzantine text, this Bible is a great quick look at the range of Greek or Hebrew meanings in a passage.

New English Translation (NET):  I love this Bible - it's my current read-through text. It contains over 10,000 translators notes that explain why they made the choices they did. They utilized all the textual families so it is pretty detailed. It's available online for free but I love my hard copy. The only thing I don't like is that it really isn't very poetic in some of the places where poetry is called for, so it's less readable in some portions. But this translation has challenged me in many areas by putting translations I'm less familiar with (and explaining the choices). In my opinion it's a must-have for any serious Bible student, at least as a reference point.

The Living Bible: This is a complete paraphrase, but it's the Bible I use when preparing Bible stories, because it really does read just like a story. I don't teach from it, but it makes telling the story as a story rather than a series of verses a lot easier.

Finally, if I could add one translation, it would be the New Living Translation (NLT). So often when I refer to this one online it brings out some of the heart meaning of the text. For example, its translation of Isaiah 53:12 speaks deeply to me, accurately translating the word most commonly translated "transgressors" as "rebels".

I hope this quick overview has been helpful. Remember, God wants to reveal Himself to you through His Word. If this post has helped you in some way with that, then praise be to Him. If it has overwhelmed or confused you, then I haven't been a very good teacher and you can ignore this post. His word never returns void. I pray it accomplishes His purposes in your life.
Dockery, David. Holman Bible Handbook. Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bible 101, Question 2: What texts should be considered Scripture?

When I first began to read the Bible as an adult, while still in the research phase of determining the validity of its claim to be inspired by God, I had this idea that its books were selected by a group of men sitting around a table deciding what stayed and what went. Frankly, that was a sticking point for me. It was only when I decided to research how we got our Bible that I realized the 66 books commonly comprising the Bible came to be accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole before they were officially compiled into a compilation called the canon. Let’s take a look at that process. (Note: I highly recommend’s excellent article and encourage you to read that entire piece in conjunction with my blog post.)

What is the canon?
The word “canon” comes from a Greek word that means “a straight rod or bar” and came to be used for anything providing a “rule or standard for testing straightness.” When we use the word “canon” to refer to Scripture, it means those books that have been proven to be part of the collection considered the inspired word of God. It is important to note that contrary to my early preconceptions, no books became Scripture because a council voted to make it so. Rather, formal acceptance of a book into the canon occurred as a result of the people of God widely receiving that book as the inspired word of God. Furthermore, the books were inspired by God the moment they were written; they did not become inspired because of people’s acceptance of them.

The role of the religious communities, however, was crucial in forming the generally accepted canons of the Old Testament and New Testament. A number of scrolls circulated – additional letters, prophecies, collections of sayings, “gospels” containing biographies of Jesus’ life, and so on. You’ve probably heard the saying, “The cream rises to the top.” When it comes to the canon, that’s a great picture. While there was sporadic acceptance of some books, the books that came to be considered the Bible had widespread acceptance. As the councils began to formalize the canon, they looked at those books with less acceptance, evaluated them in comparison to the other texts, and realized that the churches had largely rejected them for very good reasons.

Old Testament Canon. The canon of the Old Testament was recognized by the time of the New Testament. The books of Moses (the Torah or Law) had long been recognized in Judaism. Other works, such as the psalms, the historical texts, and prophets were also seen as the word of the Lord. During the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel references a collection of books. But it was after the return to Jerusalem that the books were formally put into a collection, most likely by Ezra the priest. By the time the New Testament opens, the formal collection was kept in the temple, according to the Jewish historian Josephus.

The New Testament recognizes the common three-fold division of the Old Testament canon as Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44). Paul’s reference to “The Sacred Writings” (2 Timothy 3:15) also alludes to a formal collection. After the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the Council of Jamnia publicly recognized what we call the “Old Testament” as the canon of Jewish scripture. However, this was not the first recognition, according to

Laird Harris (R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1969, pp. 62-65), traces the continuity of recognition: Moses was recognized as writing under the authority of God (Ex. 17:14; 34:27; cf. Josh. 8:31; 23:6). The criterion for acknowledging the Pentateuch was whether it was from God’s servant, Moses. Following Moses, God raised up the institution of prophecy to continue revealing Himself to His people (cf. Deut. 18:15-19; Jer. 26:8-15). The prophets to whom God spoke also recorded their revelation (cf. Josh. 24:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Isa. 8:1; Ezek. 43:11). Harris concludes, “The law was accorded the respect of the author, and he was known as God’s messenger. Similarly, succeeding prophets were received upon due authentication, and their written works were received with the same respect, being received therefore as the Word of God. As far as the witness contained in the books themselves is concerned, this reception was immediate.” (Ibid., p. 167).

Additional confirmation of the 39 books of the Old Testament as authoritative comes from the fact that the New Testament quotes 36 of them in more than 250 references. Only Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are not referenced. Finally, Jesus Himself referred to the fulfillment of “the Law and the Prophets” (a phrase used in Jewish thought to refer to all of Scripture) (Matthew 5:17-18), and referred to guilt stemming “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:35) – a statement providing chronological hinges to the Old Testament, which is how the Hebrew books are arranged. (Our structure of Law/History/Wisdom/Prophets follows the Septuagint’s order.)
Because of the extreme care the Jewish scribes took and because of the witness of the New Testament, we know with a high degree of certainty that the 39 books recognized as the Old Testament today are the same books that were considered authoritative by the New Testament writers.

New Testament Canon. Contrary to the order of books in our New Testaments, the earliest writings were not the gospels but the epistles. As the Gospel spread and churches formed, the apostles, particularly Paul, were careful to write back to the churches to provide instructions since they only had the Old Testament and were still learning what it meant to live in light of the truth of the resurrection. These letters were read and circulated among the churches. Later, oral histories of the life of Jesus were compiled and written into the Gospels; while Luke the physician wrote a chronological account of the life of Christ and the development of the church. (A general order of books can be found here, though dates are imprecise.)

From the earliest days after Jesus’ death, the community of believers placed a strong emphasis on apostolic authority. In replacing Judas the betrayer, they defined an apostle as one who had walked with Jesus and witnessed the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:12-26). These men had heard Jesus pray not only for them but for those “who would believe on Me through their words” (Luke 17:20), so there was an expectation that God would give them an authoritative message. As a result, one of the defining characteristics of authentic Scripture was that it came from an apostle or was authorized by an apostle (such as Mark’s association with Peter or Luke’s with Paul). In fact, Paul had to defend his apostleship since he was not part of the original 12 but instead was the apostle to the Gentiles (2 Corinthians 11-12).

The churches then had one natural means for determining authenticity of anything claiming to be Scripture. Another means was the existence of the Old Testament. Since Jesus had stated He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill, the Old Testament, any teaching that was contradictory could be eliminated. And the apostles recognized each other’s works, such as Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:15-16 in which he places Paul’s writings on par with Scripture.

Over the course of the first century when these books were written, and into the second and third centuries, churches weeded out a lot of spurious works. By the fourth century the 27 books that comprise the New Testament had been commonly accepted by the vast majority of the churches, and mentioned in the writings of the early church fathers. In the late fourth century, three separate councils formalized the 27-book canon: The Council of Laodicea; the Council of Hippo; and the Council of Carthage.

What about the Apocrypha?
The Apocrypha is a special collection of books written in the last four centuries before Christ. This was the time after Ezra organized the 39 books of the Old Testament. Because God had spoken of a “famine of the word of the Lord”, and because these books are not quoted in the New Testament, they are not recognized as canonical. Generally speaking, most Christians believe that after Malachi there was no prophetic word until the angel spoke to Zechariah in the temple to tell him he would have a son, John the Baptist.

Because the Apocrypha is commonly recognized by the Catholic and Anglican communities, a special word much be said about it. First, it’s important to note that these communities do not place the Apocrypha on par with Scripture. While it appears in their Bibles, it is considered deuterocanonical, or a second (separate) canon. Jerome, one of the early church fathers described its benefit this way: “The other books which the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”. (Brenton, Apocrypha, p. i). In other words, there are important examples in these writings, but we should not base doctrine on them. For this reason, they are eliminated from Protestant Bibles.

However, the Apocryphal books are not without value. They are an important source of history for the silent years between the testaments, including the story behind Hannukah, the “feast of lights” Jesus attended in John 7. One of the earliest hymns of the church comes from the “Song of the three children”, one of the additions to Daniel. Although the Apocrypha is not doctrinally authoritative and as such should not be studied in the same way we approach Scripture, it is beneficial and can be used effectively as a research tool.

The canon of Scripture consists of 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament which are consistent with what was recognized at the time of Christ, and 27 in the New Testament which are consistent with what was recognized by the early churches and formalized in the 4th century A.D. These works were recognized because of their apostolic authority and their consistency with the existing Scriptures, as well as the recognition by the majority of the churches. Other spurious works can be rejected as authoritative because of the process these 27 books went through to be compiled into the canon.
Brenton, Sir Lancelot C.L. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Bible 101, Question 1: Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? If so, what are the implications for its inerrancy and authority?

How can we know God? 
This question, and the search that often results as people seek to answer it, is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s one of the things that distinguishes us from animal life. From Aztec ruins to the buried city of Pompeii to ancient China, archaeologists unearth so many religious artifacts that an entire field of study has resulted.

People’s answers to this question have varied widely: polytheistic societies with their competing deities vying for power or sharing tenuous alliances; pantheism which sees everything as divine; deism which envisions a creator distant from everyday life; monotheism which holds firmly to the idea that there is only one God. Whatever the answer people give, archaeological research consistently finds some attempt to connect to God everywhere on the earth. To be human is to some way, somehow relate to something beyond ourselves. The question of the existence of God thus seems to be the default position of humanity; it’s what we assume by instinct. Given that assumption, then, where does the Bible fit in?

Scottish theologian Hugh Ross Mackintosh put it this way: “A religious knowledge of God, wherever existing, comes by revelation; otherwise we should be committed to the incredible position that a man can know God without His willing to be known.” (McGrath, 153). Christians through the ages claim that God reveals Himself through the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Other religious texts also claim to be the revelation of God; it is not my purpose here to evaluate those claims. Instead, we will take up the question of Biblical revelation. Is the Bible the inspired word of God?

What do we mean by inspiration?
To say the Bible is the inspired word of God is to make the claim that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. The Holman Bible Handbook puts it this way: “By inspiration we mean the Holy Spirit’s activity of directing and guiding the writers of Scripture so that what they wrote was actually the Word of God or was just what God wanted recorded….it preserved or recorded what God had revealed so that the resulting document carried the same authority and effect as if God Himself were speaking directly.” (Dockery, 7).

That’s a big claim. It’s easy to understand why many people assume that this is a claim that must be taken by faith alone. Indeed, Scripture itself alludes to the idea: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). And yet as I shared in my first post of this series, that simple faith is not my story. I required more evidence, the “doubting Rosa” that I am. So what convinced me?

Evidence of Inspiration
Before assessing the inspiration of the Bible, I wanted to be sure that the text we have is accurate. Does it say what the authors originally wrote down? According to, there are three main tests of Biblical accuracy: Bibliographic (the quantity and quality of the manuscripts); external; and internal. Each of these tests provide layers of evidence that we can use to determine whether the Biblical text is accurate – something that for me was a pre-requisite to believing it truly is the inspired word of God. (Note: For purposes of this question we will focus on the Old and New testaments. The Apocryphal writings will be considered separately when we discuss the canon of Scripture.)

Bibliographic Evidence
First, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding: There is no single “original Bible” that is held in protective status anywhere. The 66 books were written separately over a period of thousands of years, by multiple authors, in a variety of cultural and political settings. As with any ancient texts, what we have are copies. Bibliographic evidence examines what we know about those copies.

Old Testament. Time has taken its toll on the Hebrew manuscripts. The temple, where many of the scrolls were stored, was destroyed twice, first in 586 BC by the Babylonians and then in 70 AD by the Romans. The surviving scrolls were traditionally buried by scribes when they became too worn. However according to, there are six major sources of Old Testament texts:

  •          Masoretic TextJews standardized all their various Hebrew texts into the MT by the sixth century A.D. and, apparently, eliminated texts that deviated from this standard.
  •          Septuagint – In the third century BC, the Hebrew text was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in Egypt. This Greek translation is used extensively in the New Testament. Although a translation, there is no significant difference to the known Hebrew texts, and no differences that affect any major doctrinal issue. For example, there is a different order of passages in the Hebrew and Greek versions of Jeremiah; however, there is no difference in the prophetic content of that book. 
  •          Dead Sea Scrolls – These scrolls contain some of the oldest-known transcripts of the Old Testament books. Most are in Hebrew, with about 15% in Aramaic or Greek. Partial or complete copies of every Old Testament book, with the exception of Esther, are included in these scrolls.
  •          Samaritan Pentateuch – A paraphrase of the first five books of the Old Testament written in the Samaritan alphabet. Translations of this work exist in Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic.
  •          Targum – A paraphrase of the Old Testament in Aramaic, commonly used in synagogues.
  •          Talmud – Jewish teachings and commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures, which often include the text of the Scripture being discussed.

Despite the lack of copies of the Old Testament, the reliability of the existing copies is excellent. We can thank Jewish scribes for this, because they were vigilant in accuracy. They would destroy any copy that included a single mistake. It’s hard to over-emphasize the care they took; according to  “The number of letters, words, and lines were counted, and the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament were determined. If a single mistake was discovered, the entire manuscript would be destroyed.”

In 1947, the Old Testament text got a major test: The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran. These scrolls are about 1000 years older than the Masoretic Text, the standard text of Jewish scholars. What differences would show up in those 1000 years? Well, the surprising answer (for many) is – not much! There are a few textual differences, but most simply affect spelling and style. You can get a sense of the type of differences by looking at the plain text of the U.S. Constitution and then compare it to the copy housed at the National Archives. While there are some differences in style, there is absolutely no difference in meaning.

So with that brief overview, what is your conclusion about the bibliographic evidence that the Old Testament in your Bible is accurate? For me, I’m convinced. The level of care taken by Jewish scribes, the consistency between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the copies of the texts 1000 years later, the wide use of the Septuagint throughout the Roman Empire and in the New Testament quotations from the Old Testament, and the supplemental Jewish writings which include passages from the various Old Testament books, all support the conclusion that the Old Testament texts are accurate. What we have in those first 39 books of our Bible is what the authors wrote down.

New Testament. What about the New Testament? First, we have many, many more copies of the New Testament manuscripts – literally thousands. The earliest of these copies date to just within a few years of the events they occur – early enough that eyewitnesses would still be alive to challenge any false statements. Often scribes would copy texts that were read aloud, so there are more variants than in the existing Old Testament documents – but again, no major doctrines are affected. Because of these variants, scholars are able to compare documents and make decisions that affect translations – something we will discuss when we get to question three, “Which version should I read?” gives the mind-blowing conclusion about the New Testament copies: “The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure, and the correct readings for the remaining 0.5 percent can often be ascertained with a fair degree of probability by the practice of textual criticism.”

By comparison, check out this chart from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry that compares ancient Greek texts by number of copies and reliability of content. The 5600 copies of the New Testament have a 99.5% accuracy rating – they are consistent with each other 99.5% of the time. By comparison, Homer’s Iliad has 643 known copies and boasts a 95% accuracy rating. Did you read Homer in college like me? If so, do you recall your professor even raising the question of the authenticity of the text? Me either. Yet the accuracy of the New Testament surpasses even that.  

Furthermore, the New Testament was written by individuals who either walked with Jesus while on earth, or in the case of Paul, encountered the resurrected Lord in a dramatic fashion. They did not keep their writings secret; anyone was free to challenge their statements. This is an incredible level of transparency that, in my opinion, reflects an underlying confidence in their message.

So what’s your conclusion about the New Testament? Personally, I’m sold on its accuracy. We have far too many consistent copies, some of which are incredibly close to the date of the original, and the books were by and large written so quickly after Jesus walked the earth, that to conclude anything short of accuracy would require a logical leap. I’m convinced that what we have in its pages is what the authors wrote in these 27 books.

External Evidence
Assessing the inspiration of the Bible includes not only being sure that the text we have is accurately what was originally written. If the Bible is truly inspired by God, we can expect that it will be factually accurate as well. There is a vast body of literature on this subject, far more than I can easily summarize. However, I can note that there are some general categories of facts that can be researched and a vast number of scholars who do just that. I’m including a basic bibliography if you are interested in studying these areas further. One general principle to note: Watch out for skeptics who argue from silence. Many of the discoveries that prove Biblical facts right were unknown a century ago, leading to a lot of doubt about the Bible. Time and better research skills have changed that and revealed the accuracy of facts that previously were questioned or dismissed altogether.
          Historical: From the earliest years after Jesus walked the earth, Roman writings referred to Him and some others from the New Testament, including John the Baptist, by name. Josephus is a must-read for any serious historical scholar. He was not a Christian but was a Jew who first fought against, then worked for the Roman government. Other historical sources include Tactitus and other Roman historians. With regard to the Old Testament, a number of writings make reference to rulers and events included in those books; Eugene Merrill’s An Historical Survey of the Old Testament provides an excellent overview.

·         Archaeological: Archaeologists continually unearth new items in ongoing digs. Much of it is discounted as inauthentic or meaningless; however, there have been some significant discoveries. One of my favorite stories is the walls of Jericho. Long thought to be a Biblical “problem”, recent research has proven every bit of the story accurate. Excavations not only showed that the walls did, in fact, collapse to the ground, but the researchers also found a section of wall uncollapsed with houses tucked safely against an embankment – providing consistency with God’s promise to protect Rahab’s family. Furthermore, the rubble fell in such a way that it would be easily scalable by the Israelites to enter and take the city.  Dr. David Graves’ Biblical Archaeology: An Introduction is a great starting point in this area.

·         Scientific: The Bible never claims to be a textbook on science; however, it does reflect a consistency with scientific discoveries that one would expect from a book inspired by the Creator of the universe. Not only does it hint at facts that would not be discovered for thousands of years after the writing, but it also avoids some of common scientific errors of its time.   

The strong bibliographic and external evidence give assurance that the Biblical text is accurate in what it says. With confidence in the books, we can begin to examine the internal evidence. What do we see in the text itself that points toward inspiration?
           Authorship. 40 men over 1000+ years wrote 66 books. Overwhelmingly these individuals did not know each other, especially the Old Testament writers, though of course there are exceptions. Yet there is an internal cohesion to the books, with themes that run through the entire Bible. Some of the authors reference other books, such as when Daniel refers to reading Jeremiah, indicating an acceptance of other works as authoritative. Despite the differences in time, location, style, genre, and language, the Bible has a “built in redundancy” about all significant doctrines.
          Eyewitnesses. The Bible includes a number of eyewitness accounts. Indeed, “eyewitness” is an important element throughout the entire New Testament (see John 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16).  These men wrote very close to the time of the events and maintained their testimony through persecution and martyrdom.
          Internal claims of inspiration. The Bible itself claims to be inspired. Short of discarding the text as inauthentic – something our research to this point makes it impossible to do with intellectual integrity – we are confronted with these claims. Phrases like “The word of the Lord came to…”; “Thus saith the Lord”; “by the authority of the Lord Jesus”; “God said”; and more pepper the entire Bible. The New Testament upholds the inspiration of the Old Testament in passages such as these:
o   2 Timothy 3:16-17 "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." “Inspired” literally means “God-breathed”.
o   2 Peter 1:21, "for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."
o   Hebrews 1:1-2: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

The argument from Scripture itself that it is inspired is undeniable. Faced with the bibliographic, external, and internal evidence, we are left with one conclusion: The Bible is comprised of accurate texts that claim to be the word of God. What we do with that fact will define our lives.

My study years ago led me to the conclusion that God did, indeed, choose to reveal Himself through the pages of the Bible. Let me be very clear about biblical revelation. Revelation does not require a recipient. God’s words are true, eternal, written in heaven, and firm whether they fall or receptive ears or not. However, my part is to receive these words not as the words of men, but as the word of God, which is at work in those who believe. When I receive His word in this manner, I will understand its implications in ways I simply cannot if I look at it the same way I look at any other ancient writing.

The Bible is the inspired word of God, without error in the original texts, trustworthy in the content that we have today with minimal variations from those texts. It is God-breathed and authoritative. Its claims lay forth a question that everyone must answer: God has revealed Himself through these words. What then will you do with what He has said?

Dockery, David. Holman Bible Handbook. Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.
McGrath, Alistair. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Fourth edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.