- Did the events really happen in the way the eyewitnesses claimed they did?
(Are there errors of fact?)
If the eyewitnesses did not relate the events as they originally occurred, then there are only two possibilities. Either they were mistaken or they deliberately lied.
Individuals may suffer from errors of perception but not whole groups. Unlike the 'revelations' of contemporary cult leaders many of the events described in the Bible were witnessed by more than one person. On examining the accounts we find a remarkable degree of consistency. Consider for example the parallel histories in Kings, Chronicles and the Prophets, the biography of Jesus in the four Gospels or the 500 who were said to have seen Christ after the resurrection. (1 Cor 15:6)
On the other hand would the authors deliberately lie? According to tradition, eleven of the twelve disciples of Jesus met a violent death on account of their belief in his resurrection. Would they really have put themselves through such suffering for a faith they knew was false? (1 Cor 15:15-19; 2 Cor 11:23-29)
- Did the story change before it was written down?
(Are there errors of verbal transmission?)
Many people in our twentieth century world of wordprocessors, photocopiers and faxes disbelieve that verbally transmitted information could ever remain uncontaminated. An examination of the way stories are passed on in contemporary non-literate societies quickly puts paid to this kind of cultural arrogance. Oral traditions are composed in easily memorable format and are constantly repeated and checked. Some early Muslim converts memorised over 6,000 verses of the Qu'ran accurately! The capacity of the human memory is astounding as any mother who has read to her children knows.
Despite this, there was no chain of verbal transmission before much of the Bible was committed to writing. The words and deeds of Jesus were clearly recorded by eyewitnesses (2 Pet 1:16; 1 Jn 1:3, 19:35) or at least by those who carefully interviewed them (Lk 1:1-3). The meticulous detail in some of the observations proves their authenticity (Jn 19:34-5; 20:6-7).
- Is what we have now what was originally written down?
(Are there errors of written transmission?)
Scribes who copied Scripture were meticulous in their attention to detail. One has only to look at old manuscripts like the book of Kells in the Dublin Trinity College library, or some of the scrolls in the British Museum to see the truth of this. Even if we doubted this fact there are enough early copies of both Old and New Testament documents to show that they have not been changed over the course of time. Entire copies of the New Testament in Greek dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries (Codex Vaticanus, Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus) can be viewed today. Some of the earliest fragments (eg John Ryland) date from the lifetime of those who knew the apostles personally. Until this century the earliest Old Testament in Hebrew which we possessed was the Massoretic Text (cAD900). However, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran in the 1940s, (which contain parts of every Old Testament book save one) are 1,000 years older and virtually identical.
When comparisons are made with other documents of antiquity the Bible documents stand alone in terms of authenticating evidence. We know about Julius Caesar (whose existence no-one doubts) from less than a dozen copies of the original documents, the earliest of which post-date his death by 1,000 years. By contrast there are over 24,000 records of the life of Christ surviving from the first two or three hundred years after he walked the streets of Palestine.
Apart from the New Testament documents, early Jewish and Roman literature also makes mention of Christ: his teaching, miracles, crucifixion under Tiberius and even the three hours darkness at the time of his death. (see Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny and Thallus)
Archeological discoveries have repeatedly confirmed that those who wrote the Bible were consummate historians of the first order. (eg Ezra 6:13-16; Lk 3:1-2)
- Are there contradictions?
Those who make reference to the 'thousands' of contradictions in the Bible are usually unable to name one. Most genuine contradictions can be attributed to minor errors in hand copying of individual letters or numbers (eg 2 Ch 36:9 cf 2 Ki 24:8) or to verses being taken out of context (eg Mt 7:8 cf Pr 1:28). Others arise when the same story is told from the perspective of different observers (eg Lk 24:1-2 cf Jn 20:1) This is what we would expect. If serial witnesses in court give identical testimonies, one might suspect that the evidence has been fabricated. Some contradictions may seem at first difficult to account for, but can be explained satisfactorily (eg Judas's mode of death Mt 27:5 cf Acts1:18 and Jesus's genealogy Mt 1:6-16 cf Lk 3:23-31.) We need to develop reasoned defences for those most commonly raised, while accepting that there will always be mysteries. Apparent contradictions confirm rather than cast doubt on the Bible's authenticity. They would be carefully edited out in a fake. The fact remains that there is not a single error in the Bible which casts doubt on any significant historical biblical event or doctrine.
Throughout the last two thousand years the Bible has withstood vociferous criticism with flying colours. Those who are most vocal in questioning it generally either approach it with presuppositions (eg that miracles cannot happen) or are unwilling to accept the personal implications of its teaching.
A much fuller treatment of these issues than space allows here can be found in Josh McDowell's 'Evidence that demands a verdict' (see Recommended Reading.)
1. Did the events really happen in the way that the eyewitnesses claimed they did?
1 Cor 15v6
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
1 Cor 15v15-19
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
2 Cor 11v23-29
I have worked much harder, been in prison...flogged... exposed to death again and again...five times I received the forty lashes minus one...three times I was beaten with rods...once I was stoned...three times I was shipwrecked...I spent a night and a day in the open sea...in danger from rivers...bandits...I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked...
2. Did the story change before it was written down?
The words and deeds of Jesus were clearly recorded by eyewitnesses
2 Pet 1v16
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
1 Jn 1v3
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.
or at least by those who carefully interviewed them.
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 also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus..
The meticulous detail in some of the observations proves their authenticity.
Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water..
Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.
3. Is what we have now, what was originally written down?
Archaeological discoveries have repeatedly confirmed that those who wrote the Bible were consummate historians of the first order.
Then, because of the decree King Darius had sent, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates carried it out with diligence.. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
4. Are there contradictions?
Minor errors in hand-copying of individual letters or numbers.
2 Ch 36v9
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for three months and ten days..
2 Ki 24v8
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for three months...
Errors when verses are taken out of context.
For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
'Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.'
The same story from the perspective of different observers.
Lk 24 v1-2
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.. Jn 20v1
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
Judas's mode of death.
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.