[Originally published as the first part of How Do We Know We Can Trust the Bible?]
Recent research has revealed a serious epidemic with today’s Christian youth. So many are caught up in an unfortunate pattern that goes something like this:
- They grow up in a Christian home and attend church regularly, but they don’t receive solid biblical teaching or training regarding various worldviews.
- Their faith is challenged by evolutionary teaching when they attend public high school or college.
- Their questions and doubts go unanswered because of their complacency, lack of interest, or the failure of parents and/or church leadership to equip them with biblical grounding and a solid awareness of various worldviews.
- They fall away from their faith, and their generational Christian line is lost.
Many teens today are in Step 1 above, some are in Steps 2–3. Some may even be recovering from Step 4. Fortunately, some have not entered the cycle above because of their biblical grounding. Whatever your or your child’s current position, we encourage you to slowly and steadily read the following section about the most important book in history—the Bible.
So many people ask: Who wrote the Bible? How was the Bible put together? How do we know the Bible stories actually happened? How do we know that it has been accurately translated over the years? These are all fair questions. To start answering some of these questions, we will begin by looking at the big picture, then follow with closer look.
The big picture begins with the Bible’s 66 books (39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament) which were written by over 40 different authors from various walks of life, including scholars, kings, priests, shepherds, farmers, physicians, tent-makers, fishermen, and philosophers. The first books of the Bible were compiled around 1450 B.C. and the last books before A.D. 90—a timespan of about 1,500 years.
It was written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The most important characteristic of the Bible—and one that makes it different than every other book ever published—is that it is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16–17 and 2 Peter 1:19–21).
Despite such a diverse background, the Bible is unlike any other book written in history in its historical accuracy, agreement with demonstrable science and archaeology, and consistency—both internally and externally. The Bible has been translated into over 2,000 languages, and ranks highest among the most widely printed and studied books in the world.
Let’s take a closer look into how the Bible it was put together
The first 39 books of the Bible (the Old Testament) were solidified and used authoritatively in its complete form by the Hebrews well before Christ. The books of the New Testament were written between about A.D. 30 and A.D. 90 and were formally “canonized” into the set of 27 books we have today sometime before the year A.D. 375 The word “canon” comes from the Greek word “kanon,” which means measuring rod. This word was used by those who officially verified an assembled set of 27 books because they stood up to the measuring tests of “divine inspiration and authority.”
What led to this final “canonization” process? Theology and history books have thousands of pages on this topic. So we’ll consider just a few highlights between the time the New Testament was inspired by God through original manuscripts men wrote and assembled into the “final canon”:(2)
- Paul regarded Luke’s writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18; see also Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7).
- Peter recognized Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15–16).
- Some of the books of the New Testament were being circulated among the churches (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27).
- Clement of Rome mentioned at least eight New Testament books (A.D. 95).
- The writings of Ignatius of Antioch acknowledged about seven New Testament books (A.D. 115).
- The writings of Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle, acknowledged 15 of the books (A.D. 108).
- Later, Irenaeus mentioned 21 New Testament books (A.D. 185).
- Hippolytus of Rome recognized 22 of them (A.D. 170–235).
Before the final set of 27 books was formally recognized, an earlier “canon” was compiled in A.D. 170. This Canon, called the Muratorian Canon, included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. These three books were already God-inspired even though the members of the Muratorian Canon may not have recognized them as so. In A.D. 363, the Council of Laodicea stated that only the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches. The Council of Hippo (A.D. 393) and the Council of Carthage (A.D. 397) also affirmed the same 27 books as authoritative.
We owe these ancient councilmen
They sifted through false gospels and other writings that early deceivers claimed were God-inspired so that later generations of Christians could trust, study, know, teach and believe in the Scriptures.
Some of the features they recognized in the canon were:
- Did the text describe mythological or pointless miracles, or genuine miracles which always accompanied and authorized a message—the Gospel?
- Did the people who lived through the events that the text describes reject those texts as being false, or accept them as having occurred as described?
- Did the text contain any logical or biblical contradictions? If so, it must not have come from the same Divine co-author, Who is not a God of confusion, but of order—and Who is passionate about clearly revealing who He is to as many as will listen.
- Was the text written by an apostle or one authorized by an apostle?
After this “canonization” period, a definitive version of the Bible was recorded in Greek, called the Codex Vaticanus in about A.D. 350. The classic King James version, as well as the New King James, relied on the very important Textus Receptus copies of Scripture.
The Codex is one of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Greek Bible (Old and New Testament), and has been kept in the Vatican Library since the 15th century. Another ancient Bible is the Aleppo Codex, which is a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible written around A.D. 930. The first English translation of the Bible was made in A.D. 1382 by John Wycliffe was the first book ever mass-produced on the printing press in A.D. 1454 by Johannes Gutenberg.(3)
How do we Know the Bible is Historically Accurate?
Given this brief history of the Bible, let’s put the Bible through some tests that historians use when analyzing the historical accuracy and reliability of ancient manuscripts. First, let’s evaluate whether what we have today matches what was written originally. In the Bible’s case, this was about 2,000 years ago and earlier. Second, we’ll analyze whether the recorded events actually described true events. Let’s see how the Bible holds up to each of these important questions.
Does the Bible we have Today Match the Original?
One of the primary ways to answer this important question is to look at the time gap between the original writing (called the autograph) and the copies that still exist today. As a general rule, the closer the copy is to the original, the greater the accuracy and reliability. Ancient manuscripts like the Bible were written on fragile material such as papyrus, which is a thin paper-like material made from papyrus plants. Because papyrus eventually decays or gets worn out, ancient writers would continually make new copies using this material and others.(4)
Dating these ancient texts is done by a variety of methods, such as analyzing the material on which it was written, letter size and form, punctuation, text divisions, ornamentation, the color of the ink, and the texture and color of the parchment.(5) Table 2 shows the results of this “test of time” for the Biblical New Testament compared to several other historical documents.
How the New Testament Compares to Other Ancient Writings(5)
Author/Work, Date Written, Earliest Copies, Time Gap, # Copies
Homer (Iliad) 800 B.C. 400 B.C. 400 yrs. 643
Herodotus (History) 480–425 B.C. A.D.900 1,350 yrs. 8
Thucydides (History) 460–400 B.C. A.D.900 1,300 yrs. 8
Plato 400 B.C. A.D. 900 1,300 yrs. 7
Demosthenes 300 B.C. A.D. 1100 1,400 yrs. 200
Caesar (Gallic Wars) 100–44 B.C. A.D. 900 1,000 yrs. 10
Tacitus (Annals) A.D 100. A.D. 1100 1,000 yrs. 20
Pliny (Natural) A.D. 61–113 A.D. 850 750 yrs. 7
Secundus (History) A.D. 61–113 A.D. 850 750 yrs. 7
New Testament (Fragment) A.D. 50–100 A.D. 114 50 yrs. 5,366
New Testament (Books) A.D. 50–100 A.D. 200 100 yrs. 5,366
New Testament (Most Content) A.D. 50–100 A.D. 250 150 yrs. 5,366
New Testament (Complete) A.D. 50–100 A.D. 325 225 yrs. 5,366
This list reveals two important facts. First, the New Testament has many more original copies compared to several other famous pieces of literature (5,366 compared to only hundreds for other famous texts). Second, it reveals that the time span between the original and these copies is closer than almost any other work compared!
In addition to the time gap method, another way of answering the important question, “Is the Bible we have today what was written down originally?” is to evaluate the number of manuscript copies that were made of the original. Generally speaking, the greater number of copies of the original available, the easier it is to reproduce the original. Taking the 5,366 copies of the New Testament and adding the copies from other languages (such as Latin, Ethiopic, and Slavic) results in more than 25,000 total manuscripts (hand-written copies) that pre-date the printing press in the 15th century! By comparison, the runner-up historical text (Homer’s Iliad) has only 643.(7)
With this, the New Testament clearly passes both the time gap and the number of manuscript copies tests. And if the New Testament doesn’t pass this test, one must certainly disregard most other historical texts as inaccurate and/or unreliable! And there is more.
Have you ever had a computer crash, resulting in a total loss of all your data? I have—it’s definitely not fun! One of the most difficult challenges about computer crashes is losing the original copies of your important homework assignments or work reports. However, when I’ve experienced these situations, I’m usually able to completely reconstruct all of my important “final versions” through my email files because I sent copies of the final versions to friends and/or clients. This is the same situation with the original bible documents and the letter exchanges between the Church Fathers—we can completely reconstruct over 99% of the original Bible (New Testament) from just their letters!
Even if all of the copies of the Bible from A.D. 300 to today were destroyed, the complete New Testament (except for only 11 verses) could be reconstructed using only quotations by the Early Church Fathers in the first few hundred years after Christ!
This is because the Church Fathers frequently quoted large sections of Scripture in their letters to each other. In addition, if these Church Fathers quoted from the entire New Testament, then the New Testament had to have been widely circulating before this time—long enough to be regarded as reliable by the early church. This shows that the entire New Testament was already assembled and considered reliable within 50 years from the disciples.(8)
Is What was Written in the Bible True?
Three of the four Gospels, books that include the narrative of Jesus’ life, were written by direct eye witnesses of the events in Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, and John. Luke, when writing the story of Jesus’ life for Theophilus, a high-ranking official at the time(10) wrote:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Luke 1:1–2
Luke continues to state that he carefully vetted his account of Jesus’ life and ministry:
With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:3–4).
Additional examples of this careful research and transcription include:
- 1 John 1:3: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
- 2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
- John 20:30–31: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
In addition, several of the writers of the New Testament did their writing and speaking among people who were present at the events of Jesus life. For example, in Acts 2:22, Peter stated while under interrogation, “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.” Paul used this reference to his audience’s common knowledge of Christ when he defended himself against Festus:
What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. (Acts 26:25–26
Further, most of the writings of the New Testament were written during a time when the community knew about Jesus, Jesus’ followers, or knew of people who did, like parents.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 1 Corinthians 15:3–6
Finally, consider the fact that 11 of the 12 disciples died terrible deaths—being killed for their unchanging testimony of who Christ was, and of His resurrection. They were so sure that Christ was who He claimed to be that they signed their testimony with their own blood!
- Ken Ham & T. Hillard, Already Gone: Why your Kids will Quit Church and what you can do stop it (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009).
- S. Michael Houdmann,“How and when was the Canon of the Bible put together?” Got Questions Online: http://www.gotquestions.org/canon-Bible.html (November 7, 2013).
- The reader is encouraged to review these additional resources: Henry Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1927, 1965); Arthur Maxwell, Your Bible and You (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1959); Merrill Unger, Unger’s Bible Handbook (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967).
- For example, in 1946 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, which included over 900 manuscripts dating from 408 B.C. to A.D. 318. These manuscripts were written mostly on parchment (made of animal hide) but with some written on papyrus. Because these materials are fragile, they have to be kept behind special glass in climate controlled areas.
- Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers).
- McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 38.
- McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 38.
- Most of the 11 verses come from 3 John. See: Norman Geisler & William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 430.
- Geisler & Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 430.
- Theophilus ben Ananus was the High Priest in Jerusalem from A.D. 37 to 41 and was one of the wealthiest and most influential Jewish families in Iudaea Province during the 1st century. He was also the brother-in-law of Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest before whom Jesus appeared. See Wikipedia and B. Cooper, The Authenticity of the Book of Genesis (Portsmouth, UK: Creation Science Movement, 2012).