Monday, November 14, 2011


The ratings for the History Channel must be slumping again. You can always tell...whenever they need to "pump up" interest or viewership they roll out a litany of emotionally-charged, controversy-breeding programming. In this never-ending pursuit of quick-ratings-fixes, they invariably introduce (or re-introduce) a lineup of anti-Christian exposes. Be prepared to see incendiary promos featuring tag lines such as: "Meet the wife of Jesus", or something like "Dirty Secrets of the Early Christians", or, more recently: "The Lost Books of the Bible."

Really? Lost books of the Bible

Sometimes the shows might call them "Forgotten" books of the Bible, but the point is all the same, they will claim that the Bible that we have today is NOT the "Bible" of the early Christians. Innuendo, partial truths, and outright fabrications will fill the show. For those who have not studied history, or at least new testament history, the shallow arguments and conspiracy theories may, unfortunately, find somewhat of a home in their understanding.

Nothing Has Been Lost

Before we get too far into this investigation of these outrageous (and so easily disproved) claims, let's be clear: There are no "forgotten", "lost", or "hidden" books of the Bible. There is no evidence, recent or ancient, that would leave us with even a hint of such a flimsy literary hypothesis as that. Period. Sometimes proponents will use the phrase "Banned books of the Bible", as if certain writings were originally in the Bible (known as the canon of scripture) and then later removed. Mystery, intrigue, power plays, and all sorts of creative fantasy is employed to make it all sell well on the screen (or make it a page turner), yet it is all just so much fiction, and actually not even good fiction.

Fundamental Concepts

When we talk about the Bible being the word of God, there are some important concepts that must be understood. First, there is the idea of the INSPIRATION of the scripture. What is inspiration? Biblical inspiration means that God revealed His word to mankind THROUGH people. Inspiration does not mean that God always dictated His word audibly, and that people, like secretaries or robots, wrote it down. Rather, inspiration means that God used the style and vocabulary of individual people, and wrote through them, giving them His word, yet written through them. The apostle Peter put it this way:

"For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (II Peter 1:21)

The ideas and thoughts were not theirs, they were God's, but these people were moved by God to speak or write His word. This is why you can detect a different style in the Gospel of John as compared to Paul's epistles. Both were inspired by God, but with God writing through them, the styles and vocabulary of the instrument shows through.

Many times the inspired writers of scripture had to seek out and study to understand exactly what the Lord was meaning in His word through them. Peter again takes up this topic of inspiration when he writes that these inspired authors were:

"searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow." (I Peter 1:11)

Imagine picking up a red crayon and writing your name. Now, write your name with a green ballpoint pen, and then finally with a paintbrush dipped in bright blue paint. As you look at the three renderings of your name, they all came from the same author (you), but were written through three different instruments, which gives them each a unique feel and style. 

God is the ultimate author, but people were the instruments he picked up and wrote through, and since He guided that process, it was perfect and free from error. That is INSPIRATION.

Next is the concept of INERRANCY. Now, there are very technical and philosophical discussions about this idea, but basically it boils down to the concept that the original writings of each of the books of the Bible were error-free, perfect, without contradiction (for they were inspired by God). Sometimes you will read/hear someone speak of the books of the Bible being Inerrant in the Original Autographs (that means error-free in the original, first manuscripts that were written down). When the Bible speaks of history, science, philosophy, or matters of faith and life, it is true, error-free---this is the concept of inerrancy. (Inerrant literally means "without error")

Then, there is the uber-important concepts of ACCURACY and RELIABILITY. Accuracy is closely related to inerrancy. Accuracy deals with the issue of the relationship between actual events and reported events in the Bible. Are the records of the Bible accurate in terms of the historical events that they relate to us? Can we trust the details of the Bible, especially in terms of people, places, events, and conversations? This is the concept of accuracy. It does not deal with doctrinal issues, such as salvation, or the Trinity---accuracy is concerned with the historicity of the Bible.

When considering the historical accuracy of any document, there are four very important considerations: Primacy, Proximity, Credibility, and Corroboration. We will go through these very quickly.

First, is PRIMACY. How close to the original event is the writer? Are they a participant or an eye-witness (primary sources), or at least reporting the testimony of an eye-witness? Or is the account merely of hearsay or of older traditions? 

All of the New Testament documents pass the primacy test, having been either been written by an apostle (participant and/or eye-witness) or a close associate of an apostle (Mark, for instance, was informed by Peter).

Next is PROXIMITY. Proximity refers to the length of time between the event being reported and the written version of that event. Is this something that happened 70 years ago, or last week? Obviously, the closer in time (proximity) of the report to the event, the less likely errors of memory or of the addition of myth or legend will have corrupted the testimony.

Modern Biblical scholarship, using both internal and external evidences, can date all of the Gospels within a few decades of the life of Jesus, and all the rest of the New Testament well-before the close of the first century. The New Testament we have today passes the proximity test with flying colors.

It's Getting Hostile in Here!

CREDIBILITY probably needs very little explanation, but then again, maybe more than you think. Obviously the more credible a witness is, the more we should consider their testimony to be solid. A hitman on the payroll of the mafia is probably not the most credible source of information about the innocence or guilt of a well-known mobster. When it comes to the New Testament documents, there is one fact about credibility that is often overlooked, and that is the issue of hostile witnesses.

A hostile witness is anyone or anything that could point out errors or inconsistencies in someone else's testimony. These would be people who also have first-hand or eye-witnesses experience of the same information and could identify information that is fallacious, enhanced, or omitted. The documents of the New Testament were written during the first few years and decades of the events they bear witness to, that is, during the lifetimes of those who could point out errors or fabrications (hostile witnesses).

The fact that young Christianity flourished in the very city of Jerusalem (where many of the events written about occurred) gives much credibility to the accuracy of the documents of the early church. If Jesus didn't really exist, or didn't really die, or didn't really rise from the dead, then young Christianity would have "died on the vine" in the hyper-traditional, hard soil of first century Judaism. Period.

Finally, there is CORROBORATION. Corroboration refers to secondary or complementary sources of information which confirm or corroborate the testimony presented in a document. If different authors write about the same event, from different perspectives, different walks of life, and different backgrounds, then those varying-yet-agreeing testimonies lend considerable credibility to a document. 

Digging Up a Little "Dirt"

Archaeology is a branch of science that can also be brought in as a corroborating witness or as a tool of invalidation in studies of literature. The famed archaeologist, Sir William Ramsay, was originally a strong proponent of the Tubingen theory, which taught that the New Testament book of Acts was from late in the second century (over 100-150 years AFTER the events). After extensive excavations in Asia Minor and the Middle East, Ramsay was gradually compelled to re-evaluate this earlier position, and eventually came to the firm conclusion that Acts was written by Luke, in the mid first century, as claimed in the book of Acts. The archaeologist's own words are appropriate here:

"Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statement of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense... In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." (Sir William Ramsay)

Another of history's greatest archaeologists, William F. Albright, offered this observation:

"The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history." (William F. Albright)

When one considers that other historians and writers of the same time period of the early church wrote about many of the same people and events (historians such as Josephus--a non-Christian Jewish writer) the case is clear--the New Testament accounts have been confirmed, corroborated by both archaeology and secondary literary sources. To continue to doubt their accuracy demonstrates more of the predisposed mindset of the skeptic, rather than the reasonable and rational foundations for our confidence in these documents.

Like Links in a Chain

And rounding out our litany of concepts is the arena of RELIABILITY. In short, how reliable are the copies that we have in terms of their faithfulness to the original manuscripts? Think about your childhood, we all remember the game of "Telephone." One person quietly and quickly whispers something to someone, and then that person has to rapidly try and figure out what was relayed to them, and then they attempt to pass it on to the next person, and so on. After it has been told and re-told, often the final transmission of the phrase bears little resemblance of the original message, and is often quite humorous and nearly always non-sensical.

When we think about Biblical reliability we are considering whether what we have in our hands today is the same as what the original writers of the Bible wrote. Down through the centuries, like successive links of a chain, the scriptures have been handed down. As we ponder reliability, a few sub-concepts are worth noting, including Gap, Extant Copies, Secondary Sources, and Agreement.

refers to the amount of time that elapsed between the original manuscript and the oldest/earliest copy that we have in possession today. Many people are probably not aware that the Bible makes nearly all other ancient documents seem trivial by comparison in terms of Gap. Many of the other important ancient works, such as the histories of Julius Caesar, or the historical documents regarding Alexander the Great, or even the writings of Homer, have huge "gaps" in their documentation. Some of the more "reliable" historical documents, that no respectable scholar questions, are hundreds of years (and some over a thousand years!) between the original writing and our oldest known copy in possession today.

When it comes to "Gap" and the Bible, it's a no-contest, a knockout, a grand slam. With the discovery of the Rylands papyrus fragment (dated to just after the turn of the first century), we have a gap of maybe only a few decades concerning the Gospel of John, for instance. Amazingly, we have many mauscript copies from well within the second century. With the discovery of the Dead Dea Scrolls in the late 1940's, our Old Testament "gap" was reduced from over 1300 years, to less than 400. Prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest complete Old Testament was the Masoretic text, dated at approximately 900 AD. The Dead Sea documents were from 200 BC to mid first century, placing them within 200-400 years of some of the original writings! When it comes to reliability, the Bible has "closed the gap" on this important aspect.

The term Extant Copies refers to how many actual ancient manuscript copies we have in our possession today, for any work of antiquity. The shocking truth is, if you were to take all of the known copies of all of the most famous works of antiquity (Homer, Caesar, Pliny, Aristotle, Plato, etc) and add them ALL together, they wouldn't even come close to matching the number of extant copies of just the New Testament alone (almost 6000). Read that statement again. In fact, once you include the ancient Syriac, Aramaic, and Coptic translations of the original Greek manuscripts, we have a total of about 24,000 manuscripts or partial manuscripts of the New Testament (refer to for more details). (The document that ranks #2 in terms of extant copies is Homer's Illiad, at an embarrassing 643---that's only 2.6% of the number of New Testament copies).

What are Secondary Sources? Simply put, a secondary source (in terms of Biblical reliability) refers to sources that reference the original works, such as quoting from them. Examples of secondary sources include personal letters between the early Christians, or the writings of their opponents, or the formal writings of the early Christians who were defending their faith. These writings often quote from the New Testament, and some at great length. So, while they are not traditional "copies," they do provide valuable verification of what those original documents said.

An Independent Declaration

For example, let's say we lost all copies of the American Declaration of Independence. Even if we did not have full copies of it, we could easily reconstruct the entire document by reading the notes, journals, memoirs, and defensive papers that the founding fathers wrote in relation to it.

But what about the New Testament, is the same thing possible?

Sir David Dalrymple, a famed scholar of a few centuries ago, was once challenged: "Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the (Christians) of the second and third centuries?"

Dalrymple was intrigued by this thought, and set out on a lengthy study of all known copies of the letters and defenses of the early Christians (without considering copies of the New Testament itself). What he discovered is instructive for us, even today. After his research he concluded:

"That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses."

Using mathematics, since there are roughly 8000 verses in the New Testament, with only 11 verses unaccounted for, we could reconstruct 99.86% of the New Testament just from letters and other papers of the early Christians.

Incredible. Even if we threw out all of the manuscript copies of the New Testament itself, we could still reconstruct the entire New Testament with the exception of perhaps only eleven verses! So, we have over 5000 Greek, and about 24,000 total manuscript copies, along with thousands of pages of the writings of the early Christians quoting the New Testament, in our possession today. If the Bible has won the "gap" contest in a grand slam, then surely it has championed the "extant copies" competition like a team that has won every World Series that has ever been played, without any other team scoring more than once, ever.

Purer Than Ivory Soap

Finally, concerning reliability we must discuss AGREEMENT. This is a crucial test for reliability, indeed, perhaps the most important test of all. Agreement deals with the integrity of the text that we have today. Agreement asks: How well do all existing copies agree regarding the actual text itself? Do they say the same thing, or are there changes, corruptions, omissions, or additions? Basically, has the text of the New Testament arrived today in nearly identical form to what was originally written?

This type of test is fairly easy to administer, on one level. Using computers it can be handled in the blink of an eye. Simply put, the text of all of the manuscripts can be compared against each other, line by line, word by word, letter by letter--in the quest to find errors, inconsistencies, and/or changes. If the New Testament was a "living document", constantly adapting and changing according to the whim of powerful leaders (as the critics charge) then the "agreement" test of these many thousands of documents from across the world would easily prove it or disprove it.

But...what do we find? (You had better sit down!) When these many thousands of manuscripts are compared, we find that they agree to approximately 99.5%. I'm not kidding. 99.5%. Only one-half of one percent of difference. Technically we would say that the New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. Years ago, the marketers of Ivory Soap boasted that their product was 99 and 44/100ths pure...the New Testament is even purer than that (and it won't sting your eyes).

Vanishing Differences

Hardcore skeptics are never satisfied. Some of them will protest saying: "Well, yeah, that's really, really tiny, but, uh, well, it's still a difference. How can you trust it?" (and they will try to keep a straight face)

Now, on some level, that almost sounds reasonable, that is, until you read the rest of the story. What about that little one-half of one-percent? Upon further investigation, the tiny amount of differences usually involves the spelling of proper names (like Paulos instead of Paul--both the same name) or of word order (such as "Christ Jesus" instead of "Jesus Christ"). So, for all practical purposes, once those are understood, there is nearly 100% agreement between the many thousands of documents. It is literally unmatched when compared against similar works of antiquity. 

By comparison, Homer's Illiad (with only 2.5% as many copies as the New Testament) is only 95% pure. That means, in a sense, that one word out of every 20 words is in doubt. Statistically speaking, there is a discrepancy in the Illiad about every third sentence, or so.

Unmasking Unbelief

Josh Mcdowell, the famous former-atheist-turned-Christian-apologist, once talked to a college student and asked him why he wasn't a Christian. The young man replied: "Because I have an intellectual problem with Christianity. I don't believe that the New Testament documents are reliable." For those who know Josh Mcdowell, that was the wrong thing to say (as he is an expert in Biblical Reliability, and a published author).

Josh smiled and asked him: "What if I could prove to you beyond reasonable doubt, that the New Testament documents are not only reliable, they are the most reliable documents of all of antiquity...would you THEN become a Christian?"

The young man looked up at him and quickly answered: "Absolutely not."

Josh wisely replied: "Then my friend, you do not have an intellectual problem with Christianity, you have a VOLITIONAL problem." 

Josh was able to look right through the smoke screen and see the real issue at stake here. The student wasn't willing to accept Christianity (a volitional or "will" issue) and tried to hide that emotional rejection behind a shallow intellectual front.

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