By Mary Jo Sharp
Not too many years after becoming a Christian, I went through a difficult time of doubting what I believed. One of the many questions raised when I doubted my faith was, “Why do I trust the Bible?”
I didn’t know much about the biblical authors other than their names and their occupations. I’d never considered whether or not I should trust these authors, nor considered whether any tampering with the text had occurred over the last 2,000 years. In seeking to answer these areas, I discovered good reasons to trust the biblical texts.
1. The biblical manuscripts have been reliably transmitted from the authors to us today.
What should a person look for when checking to see if an ancient text has been corrupted? The person should look for other surviving copies of that text to cross reference for variants.
The Bible has the most surviving copies of any ancient document to put its text to the test for variants, or for corruption. There are around 24,000 manuscripts from all over the ancient world, some as early as the second century.
So, if a variant is found in a manuscript from Egypt, then it can be cross checked against a manuscript from Syria. If a variant appears in a later manuscript, it can be compared to much earlier manuscripts to discover when the variant was introduced into the text.
What is the value of knowing our manuscript can be checked for reliable transmission? It confirms the teaching found within has been the same since it was written. We can know with assurance that what the authors wrote 2,000 years ago is what we have today.
2. There is no motive on behalf of the authors to merit distrust of their testimonies.
In his book Cold-Case Christianity, Jim Warner Wallace, a Los Angeles cold-case homicide detective, describes how to establish a reliable witness.
Four critical areas are examined before trusting an eyewitness testimony: was the witness present, have they been accurate and honest in the past, is there additional evidence for their claim, and do they have motive to lie. Three motives cause detectives to distrust a person’s trustworthiness: lust, power, or greed.
There is no evidence that the authors of the New Testament had any of these motives. Rather, they had everything to lose and nothing to gain from giving their testimony.
Further, the authors demonstrated the other three critical areas of establishing reliable eyewitness testimony: they were present, they were accurate in their reportage of significant and even seemingly insignificant details, and there is corroborating evidence for their claims.
The evidence we do have is that most of the New Testament authors were put to death—sometimes in gruesome, painful ways—for giving the testimony that Jesus had died and risen from the dead.
It’s doubtful that after Jesus’ death, they made up a story that He rose from the dead knowing that very story would likely be the reason they would suffer and be put to death themselves.
Though one can speculate it’s possible these men knowingly conspired to preach what they absolutely knew was a lie, in real life that’s not how people practically behave.
Former White House special counsel Chuck Colson says Watergate helped prove to him the Bible is true. He watched as 10 of the most powerful men in the United States rapidly broke down their conspiracy under pressure from authorities within weeks of the Watergate investigation.
There is no doubt in Colson’s mind that the earliest followers of Jesus, average men, would stop proclaiming Jesus Christ’s resurrection when faced with persecution—unless it were true.
3. The books of the Bible are the ones early followers of Jesus considered authoritative.
Wild rumors abound concerning how the books of the Bible were collected into one text and the potential exclusion of some “lost Gospels.” Rather than speculate from a 21st century perspective, we should go back to what the early Christians were passing along and quoting as the Word of God.
Even if we did not have the surviving copies of the biblical texts that we have today, nearly the entire New Testament could be reconstructed with quotes found in the writings of the early church fathers. According to Greek scholar Dan Wallace, co-author of Reinventing Jesus, we have more than 1 million quotations of the biblical text from their collective works.
Further, by 115 AD Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, assumed the four Gospels as authentic. By 170 AD, Tatian combined these four Gospels in Diatessaron, and by 180 AD these four gospels were well‐established and recognized by Irenaeus, Bishop of Gaul. These early church fathers are one way of knowing we didn’t “lose” any Gospels.
In The Canon of the New Testament, Bible scholar F.F. Bruce stresses the importance of looking at the canonization of Scripture for what it really was: an affirmation of the texts the church already utilized as authoritative. “The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa — at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 — but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.”
Further, around 140 A.D. a man named Marcion, considered heretical, drew up his own canon. Early church fathers, such as Iraneaus, offered a defense of Scripture against Marcion. Iraneaus comments that Marcion had “mutilated the Gospel” by his removal of certain texts. So we can see the church had already began to address the issue of canonization 160 years before the time of Emperor Constantine.
As I began to understand the process of how the Scriptures were handed down to us over the generations, as well as the trustworthiness of the authors, I realized I had no evidenced reason to distrust the Scriptures. One of the main reasons we have so much knowledge about the reliability of the Bible is that the texts have been put to so much critical study.
Rather than backing down on such an endeavor, it has been Christians who have been at the forefront of textual criticism, testing to see if these things were true. We have taken to heart the apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “test everything” and “hold on to what is good.”
MARY JO SHARP (@MaryJoSharp) is assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University.