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Bible Reliability?

Updated: Mar 16

Biblical sources are dismissed as reliable evidence by many non-Christians. The writers of the Bible are accused of bias and exaggerated claims, for reasons of personal gain and fame or due to ignorance. I do not find these criticisms convincing[1] but I do have some pressing concerns with occasional inconsistencies found in the Bible.

In Islam, the Qur’an is believed to be the infallible word of God. Muslims teach that the Bible has been tampered with by humans over time. The Qur’an, however, was dictated to one individual, which apparently avoids errors of transmission. I have studied the evidence for this position and find many problems with it[2], but it did cause me to go back to the Bible and look at it more critically as a document written by human hands over 1400-1800 years. How long did it exist in oral form, transmitted by rote, before it was written down? Once it was written down, how do we know the copies weren’t tampered with? Why were these 66 books of the Bible chosen and not countless others, which are known about via archaeological discoveries?


These are some questions I have wrestled with during my ongoing journey of “faith seeking understanding”[3]. From the reasons given on this website, I hope to show that my faith in Jesus has arisen from studying evidence from science, history, archaeology, anthropology and personal encounters. However, this doesn’t mean that I am blind to some missing pieces of the puzzle. I aim to outline the few doubts that remain, as well as the reasons to believe, then you will be in the best position to make an educated decision for yourself.

In Matt 23:35, Jesus pronounces a scathing judgment upon the Pharisees (respected Jewish leaders of the 1st Century) that their generation will be held responsible for the deaths of all the righteous people/prophets who were murdered in the Old Testament: “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” The problem is that in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, it states that the Zechariah that was killed in the temple was actually the son of Jehoiada the priest. These two Zechariah’s lived 300 years apart from each other and it’s not documented in the Old Testament how the later Zechariah died (the one Jesus was naming). This seems to be a case of mistaken identity. The problem is that Jesus seems to be the one confused here (how could the perfect Son of God make a mistake?) or Matthew the writer got his facts wrong. Either way, it makes you question: if this tiny mistake exists in the Gospels, what else could be inaccurate?

The Qur’an suffers from a similar problem: it seems to confuse an episode in Saul’s life with one in Gideon’s, who lived about three hundred years before[4]. Muslims have a ready answer to this supposed inaccuracy, as they are taught that the Bible has been tampered with, whereas the Qur’an records the events as they were originally intended to be. However, by applying standard historical tools to this dilemma, surely one should accept as most reliable the document that was written closest to the time period it purports. The biblical book of Judges covers the period from 1400 to 1050 BCE; the earliest complete surviving copy is in the Aleppo Codex from the 10th Century BCE. The Qur’an is believed to have been received by Muhammad during 609–632 CE, yet the earliest surviving copies of the text come even later. By applying standard historical procedures, we can decide which source is most likely to be credible: a text dated within 400 years of the reported events, or a text that was written 2000 years afterwards? I would argue that the Islamic position takes a great deal more faith to believe in.

When I first heard about this inaccuracy in the Qur’an, I concluded that this was some evidence to show that it is not the infallible word of God. If Allah knows all, and dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad, why does this mistake exist? What is the 'best fit', simplest explanation? I don’t agree with the Islamic view that believes the Bible is the tampered document and that Allah needed to 'set the record straight' with later revelations preserved by Muslims. Why would such a seemingly small detail have been tampered with to mix up the names and events of two Old Testament stories that are hardly pivotal? Surely if there was some conspiracy to tamper with Biblical texts it would be to add claims of divinity to Jesus, or to argue that the Jews are the chosen people of God – i.e. tampering with a motive for some gain. I think it more likely that Muhammad, who worked in a camel train in his early years, would have met many diverse groups whilst trading. He most likely heard stories from travelling Jews, Christians and other religious groups telling tales of their Gods. Then years later, when he dictates the writings of the Qur’an, his memory of some of these inconsequential stories is a little hazy from the passage of time and he mixes up an old Jewish story with the leader from a different time. As he was illiterate (as Muslims readily teach), he had no means of checking these details for himself by consulting the scriptures, and so the mistake crept in from his memory bank.

If this is what I concluded about the Qur’an inaccuracy, would I not be guilty of double standards if I didn’t show the same level of critique and scepticism to the Gospel inaccuracy? Which Zechariah was killed between the altar and the temple? We know that 2 Chronicles described this death for the early Zechariah. Did Jesus/Matthew mistake the two, in a similar vein as I argued above for the Quranic example? Did both happen to die in the same way? Seems highly unlikely, yet not an impossibility. For example, the death of the early Zechariah was infamous; if a later historical figure with the same name angered the Jews in a similar way as the predecessor when he accused them of abandoning God[5], it may seem fitting in the eyes of the persecutors to finish him off in the same way. The Jewish Targum (commentary) on Lamentations, tells us that Zechariah, the son of Iddo, was killed in the temple (this is the Zechariah that Jesus referred to, but uses the grandfather’s name, rather than the father’s name). So, it could be possible that both Zechariah's died a similar death. This is one possible working theory to solve the alleged inconsistency, but by no means settles it fully at present.

It is worth pointing out that this issue of slight discrepancies in scripture is much more of a problem for Muslims than it is for Christians. The Bible was written by a whole range of authors over hundreds of years. The authors were inspired by God in their writing but nowhere does it suggest that God dictated it word for word through them via visions/trances like Muslims report happened to Muhammad. The biblical writers were human and thus a few small errors are to be expected without damaging the credibility of the overall document. Maybe Matthew made a mistake over which Zechariah Jesus was referring; but he's hardly going to forget the details of the amazing miracles he saw first-hand, is he?


The four Gospels contain small chronological differences in the resurrection accounts of Jesus. The fact that these 'inconsistencies' have been kept in the text without being edited over time in order to guarantee uniformity and avoid doubt, I think strengthens the argument for the Bible's reliability. Eye-witnesses never line up perfectly in their reports of events, but as long as the main key features are corroborated and uniform, then their testimonies should be taken seriously.

There are other issues I have with the Bible, which I hope to tackle in later posts. Yet, whilst some doubts remain, I still have faith in Jesus Christ – in His existence, His reality, and the Truth that He reveals. My faith is stronger than my doubts, due to the explorative journey I have travelled, scrutinising my beliefs and finding they stand up to intense criticism. I am so thankful that the Bible encourages everyone to investigate faith for themselves[6] not subscribe to it blindly. Truth should be able to withstand probing and verification. Christians are called to “test the spirits”[7]. Beware of any ideology that promotes only obedient submission – maybe you should ask yourself, what has it got to hide?


References

[1] See my post Reason 2: Investigating the Witnesses

[2] Pending future post

[3] Anselm

[4] Compare Judges 7:5 with Surah 2:246-248, where Talut is accepted by Islamic Scholars to refer to Saul

[5] Compare 2 Chron 24:20 and Zech 1:2-6

[6] John 20:27, Psalm 34:8, Luke 1:3

[7] 1 John 4:1

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