Dr Simon Sherwin, who specialises in the historical background to the Bible, addresses questions about the Bible, its accuracy and its relevance to today.
1. What is the Bible anyway?
The word ‘Bible’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘books’. In fact, the Bible isn’t just one book but a collection of books, 66 in all, of varying lengths, written by about 40 different writers over a period of about 1500 years. It was written in three different languages on three different continents by people from a variety of different social backgrounds: farmers and fisherman, courtiers and kings, soldiers and shepherds, some who were well educated, others with no formal education at all. The different books also cover all different types of literature: poetry, history, biography, prophecy, letters, law – all are to be found within its pages. That all these books should be brought together into one is in itself amazing. What is even more amazing is that the Bible hangs together as a whole, coherent story without any contradictions. It charts the dealings of God with mankind from the creation of the world to the end of time. In particular, its big theme is to unfold God’s purpose in relation to His Son, Jesus Christ, and this it does from beginning to end (cf. Luke 24. 27).
2. How did we get the Bible?
The Bible is divided into two main sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament dates from the period before the birth of Jesus Christ, whilst the New Testament was written after His death and resurrection. How both the Old and New Testaments actually came together is not known. However, we do know that all the Old Testament books except Esther were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from around 200 BC (that is, around 200 years after it was finished), showing that the writings that make up the Old Testament today were already collectively recognised as having authority. Similarly the books that comprise the New Testament were already being quoted by the second century AD (less than 100 years after completion) and we have copies of the complete New Testament which date from the fourth century. At no point in history do we have a committee meeting to decide what books should be in the Bible, although there are accounts of meetings to decide what other writings (such as the Apocrypha) should not. At all times that we have records for, the books that make up the Bible as it is today, and only these, have consistently been held to be the Word of God. As Christians we believe that the whole process was overseen and orchestrated by God. Certainly, the more the Bible is examined with an open mind the more the stamp of God’s authority can be clearly seen all over it.
3. Hasn’t the Bible changed over time? How do I know that the Bible I have reflects what was originally written?
Before the arrival of the printing press all texts had to be copied painstakingly by hand if another copy was to be produced. Anyone who has tried to copy out texts of any length by hand will know how easy it is to make mistakes. These mistakes only get worse over time until eventually a text might bear no relation to what was originally written (like Chinese whispers). Is that what happened with the Bible? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’! The evidence we have shows the immense care and respect that was shown in copying out the Bible. For example, although we have translations of the Old Testament from earlier, until 1947 the oldest copy of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew dated to about AD 1000. However, in 1947 a number of scrolls were discovered in caves at Qumran close to the shores of the Dead Sea (the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’), dating to over 1000 years before. Surprisingly to many the text on these scrolls bore very close relation to the later texts. In other words there were no significant differences in 1000 years of copying! For the New Testament, on the other hand, we have thousands of manuscripts and fragments, the earliest of which dates to around AD 125, a fragment of John’s Gospel, less than 40 years after it was written. Differences in these amount to a small percentage of the whole, most of them being differences in spelling or word order which make no difference to the sense. None of the differences call into question any of the core teachings about the Lord Jesus: the virgin birth, His miracles, His death and resurrection, His deity and so on are all firmly established in the texts. This is totally remarkable, especially when we compare the Bible with other famous ancient texts, such as the works of Julius Caesar or Homer’s Odyssey. Not only the sheer number of manuscripts but also their accuracy is a remarkable testimony to the hand of God in preserving His word.
4. Doesn’t the Bible contain a lot of contradictions?
This is a question that is often raised by sceptics and by those who, in general, haven’t read the Bible for themselves. The answer to it is ‘no’. None of the supposed contradictions actually stands up to close scrutiny! To show that we are open to a challenge, why not see if you can find one and write in?
5. Is the Bible true? Does it matter?
The Bible makes a number of claims about itself. One of these is that it is true. Time and again it says that the word of God is ‘the truth’. The Lord Jesus Himself, when praying to His Father said ‘Thy word is truth’ (John 17. 17). One of the claims made about God in the Bible is that He cannot lie (Titus 1. 2). This means that the question of whether or not the Bible is true becomes of vital importance for if we cannot trust the Bible we cannot trust the God of whom it speaks. If the Bible cannot get the facts right on unimportant matters how can we trust it about such vitally important matters as heaven and hell, or salvation?
6. So, how can we know if the Bible is true?
There are several ways to find out the answer to this question, some internal, some external. That is, we could examine the Bible itself and ask ourselves the question ‘does it ring true?’ What it says about the world we live in or the people whose lives it talks about – is it consistent with what we know of the world or of people? The answer to this is, ‘yes’. The Bible does not paint a rosy picture of the world around us. It does not try to cover things over. It tells things as they are. If you were to read, for example, 2 Timothy chapter 3 verses 1-5 you would find a description of society that tallies closely with what we hear or see every day in the media – and that in a book written nearly 2000 years ago!
What the Bible says about the people it talks about also rings true. For, even the great heroes of the Bible, such as Moses or King David, are presented to us with their failures as well as their successes, their shortcomings as well as their virtues. Battles are lost as well as won. The Bible tells things as they are. This is unusual in an the ancient Near East where it was customary for kings to present themselves in the best light possible and where, to save face, a positive spin was put on even the worst defeats (some things don’t change!). In contrast to these other texts the Bible rings true.
We could look at various other internal pointers, such as the fulfilment of Bible prophecy, especially in relation to the Lord Jesus where prophecies written hundreds of years before His birth were fulfilled in detail (if you want to know more, please ask).
7. You’ve used the Bible to say that the Bible is true! Isn’t there a less biased way?
There is not only internal evidence to determine whether or not the Bible is true. More conclusive, in some ways, is the external evidence, that is, evidence that has nothing to do with the Bible that confirms what it says. We could look at two kinds of evidence here: historical and archaeological. For the Bible, although it is not a history book as such, makes statements, refers to events, people and places that firmly places it in a historical and geographical context. The books of Kings and 2 Chronicles, for example, mention some 25 foreign rulers and other officials. Some of these foreigners they also refer to as contemporaries. In every case the Bible gets them right. Foreign rulers also appear in their correct historical order. Not only people, but also events that the Bible writes about when we can compare them with other ancient records we find that they are related with extreme accuracy.
The New Testament is no less accurate. The writings of Luke (Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts) give a history of the origins of Christianity and its spread in the first century AD. These, too, are firmly grounded in their historical context. He himself claims that he had access to excellent eye-witness sources and he himself was an eye-witness to some of the events that he relates. He mentions three Caesars by name (in their correct order) as well as various officials in different places of the Roman empire of the first century, and not only gets them right but even names their specific titles correctly. Every city had a different atmosphere, a different feel to it, and he also manages to get this right.
Both the Old and New Testaments, therefore, where it is possible to check them against other historical records, stand up to close scrutiny. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that we can also trust those parts that we have no means of checking. It is a fact that Biblical accounts that have in the past been questioned or denied by sceptics have been proved to be accurate in the light of fresh discoveries.
8. You mentioned archaeology. What about that?
If the Bible talks about real people, real places and real events we would expect that some of these at least could be recovered by uncovering the ruins of places that have been left behind. This is obviously not possible everywhere because in many places people are still living and building their houses on top of the ruins of centuries of habitation. However, there are other places that have been abandoned and even in places still lived in, at times, discoveries come to light. Consistently these discoveries confirm what the Bible says. For example 2 Kings 20. 20 talks about a king called Hezekiah who constructed a tunnel to bring water into the city of Jerusalem. In the 19th century sceptics scoffed at the possibility but this tunnel has been found and tourists can walk up it!
Going further back in time to the time of David and Solomon 1 Kings 9. 15 talks about city walls that were built in the cities of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo. All these sites have been excavated and at each walls dating to the right time period in a similar style have been found.
Small artefacts that have been discovered, such as seals with the names of Israelite kings on also serve to confirm the historicity of the Bible. The same is true of New Testament times.
9. What about Jericho? Don’t people say that there is no evidence that it was conquered in the time of Joshua?
It is true that many people say that there is no evidence for the destruction of Jericho in the time of Joshua. There is a very good reason for this: they assume that Joshua lived much later than the Bible says that he did. Consequently, when they look for ruins from the time that they think the conquest of Canaan took place Jericho is uninhabited (as the Bible says that it was!). However, if we examine ruins from around 1400 BC (what is known as the ‘middle bronze age’) a different picture emerges. Here there is evidence of a violent destruction. The walls collapsed and the city was set on fire. Actually, it is striking to see how many of the incidental details recorded in the Bible find their counterpart in the archaeological record. Not only does the Bible say that the walls fell down, for which there is ample evidence of bricks piled up, but also that there was part of the wall that did not – the part where Rahab’s house stood – and this, too, tallies with what is actually there. The Bible says that the attack took place in time of harvest, that the city was to be burnt and that there was to be nothing removed from it except precious metals. Within the city were found many jars of charred grain. In other words the grain had been harvested (which is why the grain was there), and it had been burnt (signifying that the city was burnt when it was conquered) without having been removed from site (as conquerors would usually do since they had an army to feed). These, and other details too, are consistent with what the Bible says.
10. The Bible might be true but what relevance does that have for me?
The Bible might be historically and archaeologically accurate but if all these things happened so long ago what does that have to do with today? We have already seen how up to date the Bible is about the society in which we live. The Bible tells us of a God who does not change with the passing of time, whose standards remain the same and whose love for those who have offended Him does not change either. The Bible speaks of a condition that is common to all humanity that it calls ‘sin’, a condition that sets us at odds with each other and, more importantly, separates us from the God who made us. Yet the Bible also speaks of a solution: the God who loves is a God who gave His only Son to be the Saviour of the world. The Bible calls on us to trust that Saviour, Jesus Christ, and promises salvation and forgiveness of sin to all who do.
Is the Bible true? I believe all the evidence points to the fact that it is. However, there is nothing really that I can say that will ultimately convince you. Why not read it for yourself with an open mind and allow the God who authored it to convince you? There are many who have!