Lesson 01.04

Is the Bible Reliable?


    When we say that the Bible is inspired, we are saying it is inspired in the original documents.  "Inspiredness is not a quality attaching to corruptions which intrude in the course of the transmission of the text, but only to the text as originally produced by the inspired writers. The acknowledgment of biblical inspiration thus makes more urgent the task of meticulous textual criticism, in order to eliminate such corruptions and ascertain what that original text was."1  Therefore, when critics of the Bible point out apparent contradictions, what they are doing is either failing to understand the context of the passages they are examining, or they have encountered a scribal copying error.  The fact is that there are indeed copyist errors on the biblical documents and they account for many alleged contradictions.  Remember, it is the autographs (original writings) that are inspired and inerrant, not the copies. The copies we have now are copies of inspired documents.  The copies are not themselves "inspired"; that is, they have no guarantee of being 100% textually pure.  Does this then mean that we can't trust the Bible?  Not at all.  The copies are so accurate that all of the biblical documents are 98.5% textually pure.  The 1.5% that is in question is mainly nothing more than spelling errors and occasional word omissions like the words  "the", "but", etc. This reduces any serious textual issues to a fraction of the 1.5% and none of these copying errors affects doctrinal truths.  Following are some types of copyist errors:

  • Dittography - Writing twice what should have been written once.

    • A good example would be writing "latter" instead of "later."  "Latter" means nearest the end.  "Later" means after something else.

  • Fission - Improperly dividing one word into to words.

    • Example:  "nowhere" into "now here."

  • Fusion - Combining the last letter of one word with the first letter of the next word.

    • "Look it is there in the cabinet... or Look it is therein the cabinet."

  • Haplography - Writing once what should have been written twice.

    • A good example would be "later" instead of "latter."  "Later" means after something else.  "Latter" means nearest the end. 

  • Homophony - Writing a word with a different meaning for another word when both words have the exact same pronunciation.

    • Meat and meet have the exact same sound but different meanings.  Also, there and their and they're are another example.

  • Metathesis - An improper exchange in the order of letters.

    • Instead of writing "mast," someone writes "mats," or "cast" and cats."

     Additionally, we need to clarify that the copies have "repeated" copyist errors.  This means that each of these copy errors is counted as another, when in reality, they are repeated mistakes. Following is an illustration of how these variants, as they are called, are counted.

    In the above diagram, there are 26 total "documents" - designated by solid lines.  The red documents contain variants.  In this illustration there would be a total of nine variants in 26 copies.  But, we can see that they are really one variant that has been copied.  This illustrates why the Bible is actually extremely well preserved since we are able reconstruct the document tree and see where variants are introduced and then document them.
     Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940's, the oldest extant copy of any Old Testament writings were the Masoretic Text dated around 916 AD.  When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, a complete copy of Isaiah was found.  Its date was 125 BC.  The difference in dates between the oldest copy and the newly discovered Isaiah document was 1000 years.  This provided a pristine opportunity to judge the copying accuracy of the Old Testament documents since it would be easily discernable which errors crept in over 1000 years.  The documents proved to be 95% textually identical.  The 5 percent that was different were mainly misspellings of words and did not constitute any threat to the content or reliability of the text.  This shows how accurately it was transmitted. 

Other ancient writings

     If the critics of the Bible want to through it out because some of the copies of the documents are not perfectly identical, then they must also throw out other ancient writings which are no where near as well preserved as the biblical documents.  Please consider the chart below that compares the New Testament to other ancient writings.

Author When Written Earliest Copy Time Span No. of Copies
Homer (Iliad) 900 BC 400 BC 500 years 643
Ceasar  (The Gallic Wars) 100 - 44 BC 900 AD 1,000 years 10
Plato (Tetralogies) 427 - 347 BC 900 AD 1,200 years 7
Aristotle 384 - 322 BC 1,100 AD 1,400 years 49
Herodotus (History) 480 - 425 BC 900 AD 1,300 years 8
Euripedes 480 - 406 BC 1,100 AD 1,500 years 9
New Testament 50 - 90 A.D. 130 AD
30 years 24,000

This chart was adapted from charts in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, 1979, pages 42 and 43; 

     It is obvious that the New Testament is far better preserved than any other ancient text, yet, people have no problem believing in Caesar, Plato, and Aristotle.
     The New Testament documents fall into three categories:  1) Greek manuscript copies, 2) other language copies, and 3) citations in early church writings.  The NT was written in Greek and we have more than 5000 different Greek Manuscripts from which to compare.  Additionally, there are another 19,000 manuscripts of ancient origin that are translations.  That is, we have 19,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in Latin, .....  And finally, all of the NT (except for 11 verses) can be reconstructed from quotes of early church writings.  It is very well preserved.
     Therefore, we can see that the Bible is an ancient document that has withstood thousands of years of transmission with remarkable accuracy and clarity.  We can trust it to be what it says it is:  the word of God.  It is reliable.
     For more information on textual manuscripts please see: Papyri, p1 through p76; 200 AD to 700 AD copies and Letter Uncials; 4th to 10th century copies.


Martin Luther wrote to the prime minister in Germany: I have lately seen a miracle. I looked out of the window at the stars in Gods whole heavenly dome. I nowhere saw any pillars where the Master had placed such a dome still stands fast. There are some who seek such pillars and would like very much to feel and grasp them; because they cannot do it, they tremble and write as if the heavens would certainly fall for no other reason than that they cannot seize pillars. I would sooner expect to see the heavens fall than to see one jot or tittle of all the Word of God fail.

1.  The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1962.

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