The following is a short post I wrote answering the question, if we don’t have any of the original documents that comprise the Bible – we only have copies – how can we claim it has authority and is of God?
Having been a student of history before entering ministry, I have always found this conversation fascinating. The challenge is in communicating authority of a document without citing the document itself; if someone does not believe in God or the authority of the scriptures, citing scripture’s claims to authority is a circular argument that carries no weight with the skeptic. Fields is right in claiming this is a critical issue when he sums up “the situation.”1 I instead like to focus on standards of authority outside of scripture over time. History absolutely supports the existence of Christ, who in turn gives authority to the Old Testament through His use of it during His time one earth. More significantly, is the sheer volume of copies of scripture we have.
Historians consider what we hold today as representative and authoritative from Plato, yet there are only seven copies of his works, dated 1200 years after the originals, and vary significantly. We have eight copies of Herodotus’ works, 1300 years removed from the originals, which also vary significantly. Similar results are found in the works of Pliny, Suetonius, Euripides, and many others. Aristotle is an improvement with 49 copies of his works existing, but even they are removed by 1400 years.2 Even Shakespeare, removed from us by only a handful of centuries, has significant debate amongst historians about the accuracy of what we hold today and the question of whether or not they are what the performers recited in the Globe Theater under his direction.
And yet, we have thousands and thousands of the Old and New Testament. We have copies within a few lifetimes of the originals. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have copies of Old Testament works with prophecies about Christ that are positively dated before Christ’s time on earth. Fields points out that the Old Testament copies line up 90% of the time, with only a fraction of a percentage of the difference being words that are not grammar/spelling related. The New Testament copies, thousands of them, line up 99.5% of the time. Other religions have to revise their works or come up with complicated explanations and rationales as modern historical discoveries contradict what is recorded in their scriptures. The Bible, however, is primarily a work of history, poetry and prophesy. In the past there have been critics of its accuracy, questioning some of the historical claims in the scriptures that had not yet been substantiated – yet over time, as we continue to make new historical discoveries, find cities previously unknown, etc., they only serve to confirm scripture, not contradict it. As time goes on, the authority of the documents are only strengthened, not weakened like other religious documents.
For me, the only explanation for the sheer volume of copies of scripture, preserved so well over history – unlike any other major writer or religion – points to a supernatural intervention that can only be explained by God. The scriptures have authority based on secular man’s historical standards. Because of that authority, scriptures claims regarding God carries a weight that no other religious writing does.
1. Lee M. Fields, Hebrew for the Rest of Us: Using Hebrew Tools Without Mastering Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 44.
2. Nicky Gumbel, The Alpha Course Manual (Colorado Springs, CO: Alpha, 1995).