The Bible was written over a span of 1500 years, by 40 authors. Unlike other religious writings, the Bible reads as a factual news account of real events, places, people, and dialogue. Historians and archaeologists have repeatedly confirmed its authenticity. Using the authors’ own writing styles and personalities, God shows us who he is and what it’s like to know him. There is one central message consistently carried by all 40 authors of the Bible: God, who created us all, desires a relationship with us. He calls us to know him and trust him.
The Bible not only inspires us, it explains life and God to us. It does not answer all the questions we might have, but enough of them. It shows us how to live with purpose and compassion. How to relate to others. It encourages us to rely on God for strength, direction, and enjoy his love for us. The Bible also tells us how we can have eternal life.
Multiple categories of evidence support the historical accuracy of the Bible as well as its claim to divine authorship.
Archaeology cannot prove that the Bible is God’s written word to us. However, archaeology can (and does) substantiate the Bible’s historical accuracy. Archaeologists have consistently discovered the names of government officials, kings, cities, and festivals mentioned in the Bible — sometimes when historians didn’t think such people or places existed. For example, the Gospel of John tells of Jesus healing a cripple next to the Pool of Bethesda. The text even describes the five porticoes (walkways) leading to the pool. Scholars didn’t think the pool existed, until archaeologists found it forty feet below ground, complete with the five porticoes.
Many of the ancient locations mentioned by Luke, in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, have been identified through archaeology. In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities and nine islands without an error.
Some people have the idea that the Bible has been translated “so many times” that it has become corrupted through stages of translating. If the translations were being made from other translations, they would have a case. But translations are actually made directly from original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic source texts based on thousands of ancient manuscripts.
The Old Testament’s accuracy was confirmed by an archaeological discovery in 1947, along today’s West Bank in Israel. “The Dead Sea Scrolls” contained Old Testament scripture dating 1,000 years older than any manuscripts we had. When comparing the manuscripts at hand with these, from 1,000 years earlier, we find agreement 95% of the time. And the 5% differences are minor spelling variances and sentence structure that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.
Regarding the New Testament, it is humanity’s most reliable ancient document. We have thousands of copies of the New Testament, all dated closely to the original writing. In fact, we are more sure the New Testament remains as it was originally written by its authors, than we are sure of writings we attribute to Plato, or Aristotle, or Homer’s Iliad.
Four of the authors of the New Testament each wrote their own biography on the life of Jesus. These are called the four gospels, the first four books of the New Testament.
Two of the gospel biographies were written by the apostles Matthew and John, men who knew Jesus personally and traveled with him for over three years. The other two books were written by Mark and Luke, close associates of the apostles. These writers had direct access to the facts they were recording. The early church accepted the four gospels because they agreed with what was already common knowledge about Jesus’ life.
Again, the gospels read like news reports, a factual accounting of the days events, each from their own perspective. The descriptions are unique to each author, but the facts are in agreement. The gospels give specific geographical names and cultural details that have been confirmed by historians and archaeologists.
The Bible reports that Jesus of Nazareth performed many miracles, was executed by the Romans, and rose from the dead. Numerous ancient historians corroborate the Bible’s account of the life of Jesus and his followers:
Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-120), an historian of first-century Rome, is considered one of the most accurate historians of the ancient world. An excerpt from Tacitus tells us that the Roman emperor Nero “inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class…called Christians. …Christus [Christ], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus….”
Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian (A.D. 38-100+), wrote about Jesus in his Jewish Antiquities. From Josephus, “we learn that Jesus was a wise man who did surprising feats, taught many, won over followers from among Jews and Greeks, was believed to be the Messiah, was accused by the Jewish leaders, was condemned to be crucified by Pilate, and was considered to be resurrected.”
Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Thallus also wrote about Christian worship and persecution that is consistent with New Testament accounts.
Even the Jewish Talmud, certainly not biased toward Jesus, concurs about the major events of his life. From the Talmud, “we learn that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, gathered disciples, made blasphemous claims about himself, and worked miracles, but these miracles are attributed to sorcery and not to God.”
This is remarkable information considering that most ancient historians focused on political and military leaders, not on obscure rabbis from distant provinces of the Roman Empire. Yet ancient historians (Jews, Greeks and Romans) confirm the major events that are presented in the New Testament, even though they were not believers themselves.
While some claim that the Bible is full of contradictions, this simply isn’t true. The number of apparent contradictions is actually remarkably small for a book of the Bible’s size and scope. What apparent discrepancies do exist are more curiosity than calamity. They do not touch on any major event or article of faith.
Here is an example of a so-called contradiction. Pilate ordered that a sign be posted on the cross where Jesus hung. Three of the Gospels record what was written on that sign:
In Matthew: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”
In Mark: “The king of the Jews.”
In John: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.”
The wording is different, hence the apparent contradiction. The remarkable thing, though, is that all thee writers describe the same event in such detail — Jesus was crucified. On this they all agree. They even record that a sign was posted on the cross, and the meaning of the sign is the same in all three accounts!
What about the exact wording? In the original Greek of the Gospels, they didn’t use a quotation symbol as we do today to indicate a direct quote. The Gospel authors were making an indirect quote, which would account for the subtle differences in the passages.
Here is another example of an apparent contradiction. Was Jesus two nights in the tomb or three nights in the tomb before His resurrection? Jesus said, prior to his crucifixion, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Mark records another statement that Jesus made, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:33,34)
Jesus was killed on Friday and the resurrection was discovered on Sunday. How can that be three days and nights in the tomb? It was a Jewish figure of speech in Jesus’ time to count any part of a day or night as a full day and night. So Friday, Saturday, and Sunday would be called three days and three nights in Jesus’ culture. We speak in similar ways today — if a person were to say, “I spent all day shopping,” we understand that the person didn’t mean 24 hours.
This is typical of apparent contradictions in the New Testament. Most are resolved by a closer examination of the text itself or through studying the historical background.
There are solid reasons for trusting in today’s list of New Testament books. The church accepted the New Testament books almost as soon as they were written. Their authors were friends of Jesus or his immediate followers, men to whom Jesus had entrusted the leadership of the early church. The Gospel writers Matthew and John were some of Jesus’ closest followers. Mark and Luke were companions of the apostles, having access to the apostles’ account of Jesus’ life.
The other New Testament authors had immediate access to Jesus as well: James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus who initially did not believe in him. Peter was one of the 12 apostles. Paul started out as a violent opponent of Christianity and a member of the religious ruling class, but he became an ardent follower of Jesus, convinced that Jesus rose from the dead.
The reports in the New Testament books lined up with what thousands of eyewitnesses had seen for themselves. When other books were written hundreds of years later, it wasn’t difficult for the church to spot them as forgeries. For example, the Gospel of Judas was written by the Gnostic sect, around 130-170 A.D., long after Judas’ death. The Gospel of Thomas, written around 140 A.D., is another example of a counterfeit writing erroneously bearing an apostles’ name. These and other Gnostic gospels conflicted with the known teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament, and often contained numerous historical and geographical errors.
In A.D. 367, Athanasius formally listed the 27 New Testament books (the same list that we have today). Soon after, Jerome and Augustine circulated this same list. These lists, however, were not necessary for the majority of Christians. By and large the whole church had recognized and used the same list of books since the first century after Christ. As the church grew beyond the Greek-speaking lands and needed to translate the Scriptures, and as splinter sects continued to pop up with their own competing holy books, it became more important to have a definitive list.
The main reason the Gospel accounts were not written immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection is that there was no apparent need for any such writings. Initially the gospel spread by word of mouth in Jerusalem. There was no need to compose a written account of Jesus’ life, because those in the Jerusalem region were witnesses of Jesus and well aware of his ministry.
However, when the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem, and the eyewitnesses were no longer readily accessible, there was a need for written accounts to educate others about Jesus’ life and ministry. Many scholars date the writing of the Gospels between 30 and 60 years after Jesus’ death.
Luke, at the beginning of his gospel, tells us why he wrote it: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have certainty of the things you have been taught.12
For faith to really be of any value, it must be based on facts, on reality. Here is why. If you were taking a flight to London, you would probably have faith that the jet is fueled and mechanically reliable, the pilot trained, and no terrorists on board. Your faith, however, is not what gets you to London. Your faith is useful in that it got you on the plane. But what actually gets you to London is the integrity of the plane, pilot, etc. You could rely on your positive experience of past flights. But your positive experience would not be enough to get that plane to London. What matters is the object of your faith — is it reliable?
Is the New Testament an accurate, reliable presentation of Jesus? Yes. We can trust the New Testament because there is enormous factual support for it. This article touched on the following points: historians concur, archaeology concurs, the four Gospel biographies are in agreement, the preservation of document copies is remarkable, there is superior accuracy in the translations. All of this gives a solid foundation for believing that what we read today is what the original authors wrote and experienced in real life, in real places.
John, one of the authors sums it up well, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”