How can we know whether the text of the Bible has been preserved accurately down through the centuries? Is it logical to believe that a book written by more than 40 authors in different locations over 1,500 years can be trustworthy? Can we prove that the text we have today is reliable?
If the Bible is the inspired word of an Almighty God who encourages people to "check the facts," we should expect to find convincing evidence that Scripture has been preserved carefully and accurately over time. Such evidence is available—in Scripture itself! Evidence can also be found in Jewish historical literature, in the writings of early Church scholars and in a multitude of modern sources. The evidence for the accurate transmission of the Bible is remarkable, overwhelming and, indeed, irrefutable!
Old Testament Preservation
The Apostle Paul revealed where to find evidence of Scripture's preservation when he wrote, "What advantage then has the Jew…? to them were committed the oracles of God" (Romans 3:1–2). Biblical scholar Bernard Ramm comments, "The Jews preserved it [the Old Testament] as no other manuscript has ever been preserved" (McDowell, p. 9). When God revealed His laws to their ancestors, they were given a mandate: "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it… be careful to observe them [the statutes of God]… teach them to your children and your grandchildren" (Deuteronomy 4:1–10). History clearly shows how this has occurred.
The Bible records that God gave His laws directly to Moses (ca. 1400bc), and that "when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book… Moses commanded the Levites… Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant" (Deuteronomy 31:24–26). This ark was a box containing stone tablets of the law carved by God and the writings of Moses (see Deuteronomy 10:5). It was kept in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Bible shows Ezra the priest reading and explaining the "Book of the Law of Moses" to Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon in the fifth century bc (Nehemiah 8:1–12). By 150bc, there is even evidence from extra-biblical sources that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) was attributed to Moses (The Origin of the Bible, Bruce, et al., p. 56). In the first century ad, Jesus and the apostles also quoted from and referred to the books of Moses as inspired Scripture (see Mark 12:19–27; John 1:17; Romans 10:5). Thus, the Bible provides its own account of how Scripture was preserved and used over generations.
Canon Vs. Confusion
Evidence also exists from the Bible, as well as from historical sources, that the Old Testament consisted of specific books that were widely recognized as divinely inspired. The list of books recognized as inspired became the canon of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. In the first century ad, both Jesus (Luke 24:44) and the Jewish teacher Philo referred to three major divisions of the Old Testament canon: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (see Bruce, p. 60). Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, acknowledged that the Hebrew Bible consisted of 22 books—essentially the same text which, divided differently, forms the 39 books of our modern Old Testament—and that these books "have all been accepted as canonical from time immemorial" (ibid., p. 61). The fact that 22 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament comprise the 49 books of the complete Bible (49 is considered a number of completion) indicates that a divine mind was guiding this process. The Bible is not just a haphazard collection of books!
Modern scholars generally agree that the Hebrew Scriptures were recognized as inspired from an early date. According to one source: "The evidence supports the theory that the Hebrew canon was established well before the late first century ad, more than likely as early as the fourth century bc and certainly no later than 150bc" (McDowell, p. 26). Another source states: "No one doubts that the Pentateuch was both complete and canonical by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, in the fifth century bc… such evidence implies that by the beginning of the Christian era the identity of all the [Old Testament] canonical books was well known and generally accepted" (The Origin of the Bible, Bruce, et al., p. 56). It is worth noting that none of the biblical writers or early Church scholars accepted as inspired the apocryphal books written in the inter-testamental period.
Exact Copies Prepared!
But how reliable are the Old Testament books that we have today? Has the text of the Old Testament been transmitted to us accurately? Consider the evidence. "In Judaism, a succession of scholars was charged with standardizing and preserving the biblical text" during a period extending from about 500bc to about 1000ad (McDowell, pp. 73–77). The earliest scribes, the Sopherim (400bc to 200ad), worked with Ezra and "were regarded as the Bible custodians until the time of Christ" (ibid.). They were followed by the Talmudists (100ad to 500ad) and finally by the Masoretes (500ad to 1000ad). Numerous accounts confirm that these scribes copied the biblical texts with extreme care, counting the number of words in a book, counting the number of times a letter appeared in a book, and even pointing out the middle letter in the Pentateuch and the middle letter in the Bible!
Because of such careful attention to detail in the preparation and transmission of Old Testament manuscripts, modern scholars acknowledge that "the Hebrew Bible has been transmitted with the most minute accuracy… it may safely be said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted… [it is] little short of miraculous" (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell, pp. 55–56). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 proved just how accurately the Jews have preserved and transmitted the Old Testament text. Before the discovery of the scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea, the oldest copy of the Hebrew text dated from around 1000ad. The newly discovered scrolls dated to the first century bc—about 1,000 years earlier! The scrolls contained two nearly complete copies of the book of Isaiah, which proved "to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of the variations consisted of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling" (When Skeptics Ask, Geisler & Brooks, pp. 158–159). The Dead Sea Scrolls provide solid evidence that the text of the Old Testament has not changed in more than 2,000 years!
The New Testament Preserved
The reliability of the New Testament rests on a wealth of material that is available. Scholars readily acknowledge, "There are earlier and more manuscripts of the New Testament than of any other book in the ancient world" (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Geisler, p. 93). These manuscripts clearly reveal that the New Testament "has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no, variation" (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell, p. 44).
More than 24,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament in Greek, Latin and other languages provide evidence about the text. The earliest New Testament manuscripts date within a few decades or a few centuries of the apostolic writers. By comparison, there are only 643 manuscripts of Homer's Iliad (written in the 8th century bc), and the earliest copy in existence today dates from about 400bc—some 500 years after it was composed. Only 10–20 copies of writings of Julius Caesar, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Greek historian Herodotus exist today, with the oldest manuscripts copied 1,000 years after the originals were composed (McDowell, pp. 39–43). Compared against the New Testament, no other document from the ancient world has left such a wealth of material documenting the reliable transmission of its text. In addition to the many available manuscripts, early Christian writers quoted the New Testament so extensively that almost the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from other sources.
Critics have theorized that unknown authors composed the gospels centuries after the apostles. Yet the earliest fragment of John's gospel is dated 130ad, about 30 years after the apostle's death. This supports the traditional view that John wrote his gospel towards the end of the first century (see McDowell, pp. 39–47). Also, "there is no evidence from the first two Christian centuries that the gospels ever circulated without the names of the authors attached" (Sheler, p. 33). One scholar has observed: "If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must... declare it marvelously correct" (McDowell, p. 45). Another prominent scholar stated: "It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially is this the case with the New Testament… This can be said of no other ancient book in the world" (ibid.).
New Testament Canon
For decades, critics have charged that the books of the New Testament were not written until a century or more after Jesus and the apostles lived, and were probably pieced together by anonymous authors. Such a late composition would allow time for myths and legends to creep into the text. Some progressive theologians and modern authors, as in The DaVinci Code, also assert that the books of the New Testament were selected by politically motivated committees, and that valuable books were deliberately omitted, thereby compromising the Bible's accuracy and value. However, the internal evidence of the New Testament books, the facts of history and the weight of modern scholarship all refute these ideas!
Today, most credible scholars concur that "the New Testament canon with the Gospels and most of Paul's Epistles was formed by the end of the first century… The attested date for the canonical Gospels is no later than 60–100" ad (Geisler, p. 520). Neither Luke's gospel nor the book of Acts (also written by Luke) mention the 70ad destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which was for Jews the most significant event of the century. Indeed, no New Testament author mentions the destruction of the Temple, which strongly suggests early authorship of the New Testament canon.
The New Testament books themselves reveal that the authors recognized which writings God had inspired, and belonged in the canon. The Apostle Paul wrote that "the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37). Paul wrote that the teachings of the apostles were divinely inspired and were to be read in the churches, "because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 5:27). Peter warned that those who were twisting Paul's writings were twisting "the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15–16). Scholars in the early centuries of the Church accepted the apostles' writings as Scripture, but they "all draw a clear distinction between their own [writings] and the inspired, authoritative apostolic writings" (Bruce, p. 71). This argues strongly that the New Testament canon was recognized very early in Church history.
Tertullian, a religious historian who wrote in the early 200s, appears to be the first writer to call Christian Scripture the "New Testament." This is significant, because it "placed the New Testament Scripture on a level of inspiration and authority with the Old Testament" (Bruce, p. 66). From the 300s we have records showing that the New Testament canon consisted of 27 books—the same books we have today. A letter written in 367ad by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, provides the earliest documentation of the exact 27 books of the New Testament canon. His letter, which was "designed to eliminate once and for all the use of certain apocryphal books," warns: "Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away" (Bruce, p. 74). Later, in 397ad, a church council in Carthage decreed that "aside from the canonical Scriptures [which the council listed as 27 books] nothing is to be read in church under the Name of Divine Scriptures" (Bruce, p. 74). The clear purpose was to identify which books were part of the inspired New Testament canon, and to eliminate the use of apocryphal literature.
What About Apocryphal Books?
Just what are the apocryphal books? Why were they an issue of controversy in the early Church? Are they relevant today? The "Apocrypha" (which means hidden or concealed) refers to books that neither the Jews nor the early Church ever accepted as inspired or as part of the canon (see Bruce, pp. 79–94; Geisler, pp. 28–34). Most apocryphal books date to the inter-testamental period, and were written by anonymous authors or under the name of a person or a place named in Scripture. These books do not claim to be inspired. They contain no predictive prophecies, but instead contain historical and geographical errors and promote fanciful ideas and false doctrines that contradict canonical Scripture. Jesus and the New Testament writers never acknowledged the Apocrypha as Scripture. "No canonic list or church council accepted the Apocrypha for nearly the first four centuries" (Geisler, p. 33).
Although some apocryphal books were published along with canonical books in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced by 70 scholars in Alexandria ca. 250bc), this translation was not supervised by scribes of the Judaic tradition, who had their centers in Tiberias and Babylon.
Josephus, writing in the first century ad, specifically excluded apocryphal books from the Hebrew canon when he wrote, "we have… but only twenty-two books, which are justly believed to be divine" (Against Apion, 1:8). Philo, a first century Jewish teacher in Alexandria, "quoted the Old Testament prolifically from virtually every canonical book. However, he never once quoted from the Apocrypha as inspired" (Geisler, p. 32). Prominent early writers such as Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius of Alexandria and Jerome all rejected the apocryphal books as inauthentic. In fact, it was Jerome (who prepared the Latin Vulgate Bible ca. 400ad) who first used the term Apocrypha when referring to books that were not considered part of the inspired biblical canon and should not be used to establish doctrine. Jerome disputed with the theologian Augustine, who felt that the apocryphal books were inspired and should be included in the canon, apparently because they had been included in the Septuagint.
The Apocryphal books became a major issue during the Reformation, when Protestants (following Jerome's thinking) rejected the Apocrypha as uninspired. However, at the Council of Trent in 1546, Roman Catholic leaders (following Augustine's ideas) declared those books part of the New Testament canon. This was an attempt by the Roman church to counter the influence of Martin Luther and other reformers who were teaching against celibacy, prayers for the dead, and purgatory—ideas that do not come from canonical Scripture but are found in some apocryphal books. Yet this was not the end of the controversy over apocryphal writings.
In 1945, a group of books commonly called "Gnostic gospels" were found near Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian town north of Luxor, on the Nile. Gnosticism encompassed a collection of heretical ideas that early Church leaders attributed to Simon the Sorcerer (see Acts 8:9–25; Geisler, p. 274). Gnostic writings contain purported "secret sayings" of Christ that differ dramatically from His New Testament teachings. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus flies into a fit of rage and causes a child who has offended Him to wither (3:1–3). In another work, Jesus makes clay birds on the Sabbath; when His parents correct Him, He claps His hands and the birds fly away. The Gospel of Philip suggests that Christ had a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Mary asserts that Mary was the real leader of Christ's disciples.
Early Church leaders denounced the Gnostic writings as spurious and heretical. Yet modern biblical critics, along with revisionist theologians, creative writers and mystical New Agers, have resurrected these "alternative" gospels and present them as equally credible as canonical Scripture. Dan Brown, author of the widely read fictional novel The DaVinci Code, draws heavily on the heretical ideas of Gnostic writings, as well as on occult, pagan goddess worship and mysticism. In his novel, he "makes the case that Mary Magdalene was… a strong independent figure, patron of Jesus, cofounder of his movement, his only believer in his greatest hour of need, author of her own Gospel, his romantic partner, and the mother of his child. To the millions of women who feel slighted, discriminated against, or unwelcome in churches of all faiths today, the novel is a chance to see early religious history in an entirely different light… The DaVinci Code opens everyone's eyes to a startlingly different view of the powerful role of women in the birth of Christianity. These themes have become mainstream at Harvard's divinity school and other intellectual centers" (Secrets of the Code, Bernstein, p. xxvii).
When Dan Brown makes his leading characters say, "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false" and, "The Bible is a product of man, my dear, not God," he is promoting an agenda and world view that seeks to undermine and discredit the Bible, and the Jesus Christ of the Bible. Though the plot of The DaVinci Code appears to "advocate a courageous search for truth at any price, its real goal is to undermine one of the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith—the belief that the original message of the Gospel, enshrined in the Bible, is the unique, inspired word of God" (Cracking the Code, Garlow & Jones, p. 72). The real danger of books like The DaVinci Code comes from doubts planted in the minds of people who lack historical and biblical knowledge. For such people, the fiction of apocryphal writings can appear to be fact, which leads to deception about the true nature of inspired Scripture. One of the primary reasons for public declarations about what books comprised the canons of the Old and New Testaments was to clearly distinguish between inspired books and the false and misleading writings of the Gnostics.