Updated: Aug 5
Biblical sources are dismissed as being 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 this line of argument convincing due to my explorations in historical studies of the Bible and findings from modern archaeology.
Has the Bible been tampered with over time?
One of the most common concerns people have about the Bible is whether the original words have been preserved. Maybe in the process of copying and re-copying the Bible, many passages have been changed and even lost. In the past two centuries, however, treasure troves of ancient biblical manuscripts called the Dead Sea Scrolls and others were discovered. These writings were used by a Jewish desert sect at Qumran that flourished in the century before Jesus and throughout the lifetimes of Jesus and the apostles. The surviving scrolls include multiple fragments from every book of the Old Testament except one (Esther) and a complete copy of Isaiah. The differences in wording between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the medieval manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament text are miniscule.
As more and more manuscripts have been discovered, what scholars have found is that nothing in the Bible was lost in the process of copying. Rather, scribes would add a word here or there, or more rarely a sentence, so that what we have in the biblical manuscripts is ever so slightly more, not less, than what was originally in those books.
Does Archaeology confirm biblical history?
Archaeology has confirmed or corroborated many specific details of the Bible. Archaeologists have located towns and villages mentioned in the Bible but otherwise unknown today. They have found political and military inscriptions referring to various rulers and other major figures in the biblical world, such as the famous House of David inscription, the Pontius Pilate inscription, and the ossuary (burial box) of Caiaphas, the high priest who called for Jesus’ execution. In some instances they have found evidence confirming specific events, such as the obelisk from the time of the Israelite king Jehu depicting him paying tribute to Shalmaneser, or the bronze and iron arrowheads at the base of an ancient tower of Jerusalem left behind in the battle between the Babylonians and the Jews in 586 BC.
One of the most controversial issues in biblical archaeology is the series of events known as the Exodus – the escape of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. This account is full of miracle events, such as the 10 Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Another controversial issue is the account of the Conquest – after the Israelites escaped Egypt they entered Canaan (modern day Israel) and conquered the land under Joshua, with many miracle accounts included, such as the walls of Jericho falling down and the sun standing still in the sky. There is evidence outside the Bible that gives support for the Exodus and Conquest. The Ipuwer Papyrus was an Egyptian inscription, dating about 1200 years before Christ, that describes a chaotic period in Egyptian history in which slaves were rebelling against their masters, the Nile River turned to blood, hail storms destroyed crops, all the cattle died and darkness came over the land (stark similarities to the 10 plagues). This was during the reign of Neferhotep I, which historian David Rohl argues should be viewed as the Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. The papyrus even talks about storms of cloud and fire that the Bible reports was the presence of God leading his people through the desert.
Archaeological work in Israel has confirmed that various cities there, including Jericho, were destroyed by conquerors and the collapsed walls have also been located. The conclusion many excavators have found at Jericho correlates precisely with the account in the book of Joshua. They found collapsed walls, not walls that were broken down from the outside. The unusually large stores of carbonized grain found in the ruins showed that the city had endured only a short siege, which the Bible numbers at seven days. Because grain was a valuable commodity almost always plundered by conquering forces, the large amount of grain left in the ruins is puzzling, yet consistent with God's command that nothing in the city be taken except valuable metals.
This is just the tip of the iceberg reporting modern archaeological finds that attest to different biblical accounts. There are many other examples I could include here, but I will return to my focus on Jesus…
What about the reliability of the Gospels?
The four Gospels contain small chronological differences in the resurrection accounts of Jesus. Many secular thinkers focus on these mini discrepancies to claim that the whole document cannot be trusted. However, I would argue by keeping these 'inconsistencies' in the text, without being edited out over time by copy-writing monks who may have desired to tighten up the accounts to guarantee uniformity and avoid doubt, actually 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. This is exactly what we find in the four Gospels.
What can the Bible teach us about Jesus?
Read on to the next post to find out more…