Is the Bible historically reliable? 
The Bible should be held to the same standards as every other document from antiquity. Although we (Christians) believe the Bible to be the Word of God, that doesn’t change the fact that it is also a body of literature that was written thousands of years ago.
We may not be able study “under the microscope” whether or not this book is divine in source, but we can test its historical reliability.
There are three tests for historical reliability:
- The Bibliographical Test
- The Internal Evidence Test
- The External Evidence Test
The Bibliographical Test
The bibliographical test considers the number of manuscript copies (because we rarely have the actual autographs of the text in question) and how early those manuscript copies are to the original autograph.
Standard Datings for New Testament Letters
Remember: Jesus died in the early 30s AD.
- Gospel of Matthew: Conservatives date this book between 60 – 80 AD. Liberals date this book in between – 80 – 100 AD.
- Gospel of Mark: Conservatives date Mark between 50 – 60 AD. Liberals date Mark in the 70s AD.
- Gospel of Luke: Conservatives date Luke between 60 – 80 AD. Liberals date Luke between 70 – 110.
- Gospel of John: Conservatives date John between 60 – 100 AD. Liberals date John in the 90s AD.
- Book of Acts: The book of Acts is dated between 62 – 64 AD.
- Pauline Letters: The 14 letters of Paul are dated between 50 – early 2nd Century AD.
As you can see, the authors of the New Testament are writing not that long after the events they describe – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
What is the Bible on your nightstand based on? It is based on very early copies that have been discovered over the past two thousand years. You mean it isn’t the original? Of course not. We shouldn’t expect it to be. We don’t have the original autographs of nearly any ancient documents. The material they used to write with/on became corrupt very quickly, so they had to make copies over and over. This is the process for every work of literature deep in the past. What’s unique to the Bible is two-fold:
- How early the copies of the Bible are.
- How many copies of the Bible we have.
Here’s the breakdown of the early manuscripts based on their language:
- Greek. The earliest Greek manuscript is dated at 130 AD. There are 5,856+ Greek manuscripts.
- Armenian. The earliest Armenian manuscript is dated at AD 862. There are 3,000+ Armenian manuscripts.
- Coptic. The earliest Coptic manuscript is dated in the late 3rd Century. There are about 1,000 Coptic manuscripts.
- Gothic. The earliest Gothic manuscript is date in the 5th or 6th Century. There are only 6 Gothic manuscripts.
- Ethiopian. The earliest Ethiopian manuscript is dated in the 6th Century. There are 600+ Ethiopian manuscripts.
- Latin. The earliest Latin manuscript is dated in the 4th Century AD. There are 10,050 Latin manuscripts.
- Syriac. The earliest Syriac manuscript is dated in the late 4th/early 5th Century. There are 350+ Syriac manuscripts.
- Georgian. The earliest Georgian manuscript dates to the 5th Century AD. There are 89 Georgian manuscripts.
- Slavic. The earliest Slavic manuscripts date to the 10th or 11th Century AD. There are 4,000 plus Slavic manuscripts.
Best guesses by experts say there are between 15,000 – 20,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. It’s hard to tell because the number grows daily, plus we can’t count all of the manuscripts in private collections.
To put this all in perspective, the average classical writer manuscripts would stack about 4ft high. The New Testament manuscripts would stack 1 mile high. ONE MILE!
The early church fathers quote from all New Testament letters very early on. Here’s a few:
- Clement (AD 95) quotes from all 4 Gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.
- Ignatius (70-110) quotes Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, James, and 1 Peter.
- Polycarp (70-156) quotes Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 & 2 John,
- Clement of Alexandria (150-212) quotes all but 3 New Testament books.
Well known skeptic, and New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman rightly points out all the time that there are hundreds (even thousands?) of variants (differences) in the manuscripts. For him, this was a death blow to his faith. But it certainly shouldn’t be. Historians expect to find variants. And even Bart would admit that none of the variants have anything to do with the doctrines of Christianity. It’s not as if one manuscript says that Jesus is the Son of God and another manuscript says He isn’t. No, the variants are usually numbers, transposed words or letters, small tedious things that don’t affect the meaning of the text.
But more importantly, there are only so many variants because there are so many manuscripts. And the number of manuscripts is infinitely more important than the number of variants for literary critics. Historians can look at all of these manuscripts and re-create the original autographs with 96-98% accuracy. Yes, it’s that good. And yes, even with the variants.
So, can you trust that the Bible on your nightstand contains the actual letters that the Apostles wrote? Listen to this scholar:
“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.” John Warwick Montgomery
This article draws heavily from a book I HIGHLY recommend: Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Thomas Nelson. 2017. Kindle. 40 – 68.