Friday, 11 May 2012

Is the Bible reliable? A brief overview of the most common objections.

The Bible is actually a collection of 66 different books written by over 30 different authors in three continents in three languages over a period of 1,500 years which has been carefully complied from reliable copies of the original manuscripts (hand-written documents).

Christians believe that the Bible is both divinely inspired and an accurate record of God’s dealings with man. But many people today question its accuracy. This questioning usually boils down to one of four main questions as follows:

1.Did the events described really happen in the way the eyewitnesses claimed they did?
(Are there errors of fact?)

If the eyewitnesses did not relate the events as they originally occurred, then there are only two possibilities. Either they were mistaken or they deliberately lied.

Individuals may suffer from errors of perception but not whole groups. Unlike the 'revelations' of contemporary cult leaders many of the events described in the Bible were witnessed by more than one person. On examining the accounts we find a remarkable degree of consistency. Consider for example the parallel histories in Kings, Chronicles and the Prophets, the biography of Jesus in the four Gospels or the 500 who were said to have seen Christ after the resurrection. (1 Cor 15:6)

On the other hand would the authors deliberately lie? According to historical tradition, eleven of the twelve disciples of Jesus met a violent death on account of their belief in his resurrection. Would they really have put themselves through such suffering for a faith they knew was false? (1 Cor 15:15-19; 2 Cor 11:23-29)

2.Did the story change before it was written down?
(Are there errors of verbal transmission?)

Many people in our 21st century world of internet, email and word-processing believe that verbally transmitted information could never remain uncontaminated. But an examination of the way stories are passed on in contemporary non-literate societies quickly puts paid to this kind of cultural arrogance. Oral traditions are composed in easily memorable format and are constantly repeated and checked. Some early Muslim converts have memorised over 6,000 verses of the Qu'ran accurately! The capacity of the human memory is astounding as any mother who has read to her children knows.

Despite this, there was no chain of verbal transmission before much of the Bible was committed to writing. The words and deeds of Jesus were clearly recorded by eyewitnesses (2 Pet 1:16; 1 Jn 1:3, 19:35) or at least by those who carefully interviewed them (Lk 1:1-3). The meticulous detail in some of the observations proves their authenticity (Jn 19:34-5; 20:6-7).

3.Is what we have now what was originally written down?
(Are there errors of written transmission?)

Scribes who copied Scripture were meticulous in their attention to detail. One has only to look at old manuscripts like the Book of Kells in the Dublin Trinity College library, or some of the scrolls in the British Museum to see the truth of this. Even if we doubted this fact there are enough early copies of both Old and New Testament documents to show that they have not been changed over the course of time. Entire copies of the New Testament in Greek dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries (Codex Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus) can be viewed today. Some of the earliest fragments (eg John Ryland) date from the lifetime of those who knew the apostles personally. Until last century the earliest Old Testament in Hebrew which we possessed was the Massoretic Text (cAD900). However, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran in the 1940s, (which contain parts of every Old Testament book save one) are 1,000 years older and virtually identical.

When comparisons are made with other documents of antiquity the Bible documents stand alone in terms of authenticating evidence. We know about Julius Caesar (whose existence no-one doubts) from less than a dozen copies of the original documents, the earliest of which post-date his death by 1,000 years. By contrast there are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts alone of New Testament records of the life of Christ and his apostles surviving from the first few hundred years after he walked the streets of Palestine (For more detail on this see here and here)

Apart from the New Testament documents, early Jewish and Roman literature also makes mention of Christ: his teaching, miracles, crucifixion under Tiberius and even the three hours darkness at the time of his death. (see Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny and Thallus).

Archeological discoveries have repeatedly confirmed that those who wrote the Bible were consummate historians of the first order. (eg Ezra 6:13-16; Lk 3:1-2)

4.Are there contradictions?

Those who make reference to the 'thousands' of contradictions in the Bible are usually unable to name one. Most genuine contradictions can be attributed to minor errors in hand copying of individual letters or numbers (eg 2 Ch 36:9 cf 2 Ki 24:8) or to verses being taken out of context (eg Mt 7:8 cf Pr 1:28). Others arise when the same story is told from the perspective of different observers (eg Lk 24:1-2 cf Jn 20:1) This is what we would expect. If serial witnesses in court give identical testimonies, one might suspect that the evidence has been fabricated.

Some contradictions may seem at first difficult to account for, but can be explained satisfactorily (eg Judas's mode of death Mt 27:5 cf Acts1:18 and Jesus's genealogy Mt 1:6-16 cf Lk 3:23-31.) Apparent contradictions confirm rather than cast doubt on the Bible's authenticity. They would be carefully edited out in a fake. The fact remains that there is not a single error in the Bible which casts doubt on any significant historical biblical event or doctrine. Whilst accepting that there will always be mysteries, there are reasonable explanations for virtually all the so-called contradictions (See 101 cleared up contradictions)

Throughout the last two thousand years the Bible has withstood vociferous criticism with flying colours.

In my experience those who are most vocal in questioning it reject it, not because of the above reasons (these are just smokescreens!) but for one of five reasons:

1.Hearsay. They have never looked at it but have heard that others reject it.
2.Presuppositions. They believe that miracles cannot happen and because the Bible describes miracles it must therefore be false.
3.Science. They think the Bible makes claims which have been disproved scientifically.
4.Morality. They reject the Bible’s moral teaching especially about sexuality.
5.Personal. They are unwilling to accept the personal implications of the Bible’s teaching.

Adapted from an article I wrote for CMF’s Confident Christianity series

Some Online References for further reading

1. Complete List of 127 New Testament Greek Papyri
2. The historical reliability of the New Testament
3. Complete List of 322 Greek New Testament Uncials (Sections of NT written in majuscule letters on parchment or vellum)
4. Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability
5. 101 cleared-up contradictions in the Bible
6. The Bible's manuscript evidence
7. New Testament miniscules (Sections of NT written in a small, cursive Greek script)
8. Complete List of 2,882 New Testament Greek miniscules
9. List of Hebrew Bible manuscripts
10. List of major textual variants in the New Testament

11. Ten misconceptions about the New Testament Canon 
12. Ten facts about the New Testament Canon every Christian should know 


  1. good article, but small discomfort about the sly dig "they reject the Bible's moral teaching especially about sexuality". There are SO MANY moral teachings in the bible, to single out sexuality is ridiculous. I missed the 11th commandment saying "thou shalt not be gay or have sex outside of marriage".

    When I talk to my friends about religion, they don't say to me that they don't want to be a christian because then they can't have sex before marriage, or can't be gay or can't sleep around. If their reasons for rejecting the bible is based on morality, then it is usually the overall demand of adopting Christian morals.

    What I also find difficult is that you project the view that in order to be a Christian and in order to have a correct reading of the bible, you have to have sex in the way you have interpreted it. You never give attention to the fact that there are 2 different, legitimate positions on what the bible says about homosexuality. It is possible to be a Christian and believe that practising homosexuality is ok, and although it is not your view, i think you should respect that it is a viewpoint.

    I know I am saved, and I don't understand Christians like you who try and undermine the faith of others by suggesting that there is something in our lives that unsaves us. my friend is a christian, she sleeps with her boyfriend outside of marriage, as many christians do nowadays but that would never lead me to conclude that she is any less of a christian, or any less saved.

    1. You missed commandment no. 7, which says "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). Adultery is by definition any sexual activity outside of a marriage relationship.

      Paul (an apostle by the will of God, not by his own calling) is clear what God still thinks about adultery (which includes homosexual practice) in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:9-11, 1 Corinthinans 6:9-11.

      It's difficult to interpret those verses to mean God approves of homosexual relationships unless you remove them from the Bible.

      Sorry to be blunt, I hope this clears things up.

      The point about morals is that everyone needs Jesus first. We have all rejected God and the first step to becoming a Christian is to Admit that fact. The underlying issue in rejecting Christianity because of its morals is "If I trust Jesus I will cease to be who I am". This is idolatry of self; both a symptom and a cause of our rebellion against him.

      About Christians sleeping outside marriage, see John 14:23. Sinning does not make someone 'unsaved', but we can question whether those who persistently reject Jesus' teaching on adultery (his teaching was stronger than that in the old testament on this) have truly turned away from their old life to surrender to Jesus. Jesus doesn't want part of us, or our deeds on a Sunday, or our prayers every morning. He wants all of us, because he gave us all of him at the cross.


  2. it certainly isn't difficult to interpret those verses differently- there are many articles written that question the translation of the words used that imply homosexuality. this is essentially what i get frustrated about- is that there *is* another interpretation of the verses which gets ignored.

    i do agree that sex outside of marriage is not God's best for us, or a particularly good way to show Jesus that you are surrendering to him, but my problem is where this has become the be all and end all, as the comment in the article suggested- as though not agreeing on the 'Christian' version of sexual morality undermines a person's ability to accept the bible as truth.

    out of interest, can you link me to something that shows that commandment no.7 is referring to all sexual activity outside marriage? i have never heard that before.

  3. Yes of course there are many sins apart from 'sex outside marriage' but my point in the article above (I chose my words very carefully) was that 'in my experience' the unwillingness to turn from sexual immorality is the most common reason people reject biblical authority in Britain.

    The Bible is very clear that all sex outside marriage is wrong and, as Jonno has argued above, this includes any sex between two men or two women. In this way the 7th of the ten commandments is a summary of this general principle. There is a much fuller review of this in my previous blog at

    Sexual sin is also given special emphasis in the New Testament in passages such as Romans 1:18-32, 1 Cor 6:18-20 ('he who sins sexually sins against his own body') and 1 Thes 4:3-8 ('he who reject this instruction does not reject man but God').

    The Bible is also very clear that loving God involves obeying him (see John 14:15,21,23 and 15:14) and that willfully persisting in sin after coming to a knowledge of the truth is very dangerous indeed (see Heb 10:26-31 and Rev 21:8 and 22:15). It also repeatedly warns about false teachers in the church who approve of sexual immorality (see 2 Peter 2, Jude and Rev 2:12-29).

    Don't allow yourself to be deceived about this. The 'other interpretation' you refer to is, to put it bluntly, heresy.

  4. ok, i have another question for you. so if sex outside marriage is wrong, then if they legalise same sex marriage, then would you still think people of the same sex who were married were sinning by sleeping together as a married couple?

    and would you think it was wrong for people in civil partnerships?

    you're making me question my convictions...

  5. Yes all sex outside a lifelong exclusive heterosexual marriage relationship is morally wrong by a biblical definition.

    So that includes sex within same sex civil partnerships and also within same sex marriages.

    Making something legal does not make it morally right.

  6. And making something biblically right, Peter, does not make it morally right. Otherwise you would still be condoning slavery and not letting disabled people into church. The bible is a human construction, reflecting imperfect human views of metaphysics - otherwise that nutter Saul Paulus would not have had to admit that he could only see "as through a glass, darkly".

  7. I've got a guest contributor who's a specialist on Biblical history doing some posts on the subject on one of my blogs. Would you care to read and comment?

    They're quite long, I'm afraid, but so far there are only 3.

    1. I've read them. Your unnamed contributor 'Steelclaws', who also goes by the twitter name @dragonblaze, is an Assyriologist who is not a specialist in biblical history, nor the Old or New testament texts.

      I have looked at these articles and, although containing a lot which is correct, they are essentially a pick and mix compilation from a few largely liberal sources.

      Also, your website does not allow unmoderated comments and when I post on it my comments do not appear.

  8. I find it interesting that people actually believe that the Bible condones slavery. Jesus himself said ..."He who the Son sets free, is free indeed".. Jesus, God in the flesh, came to set us free from all forms of slavery - mental, physical, emotional and spiritual etc

  9. There is a specific commandment that any manstealers who takes another to make them a slave is to be put to death.

    Indentured servitude, which is the estate addressed by the commands for treatment of a slave, allowed someone in poverty to sell themselves to settle a debt. They were, until the year of remission, bondslaves to the person who'd bought them, but were not to be abused because they were fellow Israelites.


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