How do we know the Bible is reliable? How do know that we have the same Bible today that was originally written? Isn’t the Bible being copied by different generations sort of like the telephone game, where the new copy could easily have changed something from the old copy? These questions have often been asked about the Bible, and we may wonder how reliable the Bible that we have in our hands is.
Although these questions have often been asked, the overwhelming evidence drawn from history proves that the Bible is indeed accurate in its transmission. Generally, the best book I have read on the subject is From God to Us, by Norman Geisler and William Nix. These authors walk through the history and development of the canon of Scripture, as well as the transmission of the Bible from its origin to today.
But if we consider some of the history of the Bible, we can easily see the reliability of God’s Word. We cannot simply pick up a Bible today and assume that it must have changed over the centuries since its origin without considering the process of how the Bible came to us. Although we could look at both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we’ll focus primarily on the Old Testament today.
For a long time, the oldest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible came from the Masoretes in around 1000 A.D. English translations today are largely based off of these manuscripts, and we can easily compare what we have in English to what these manuscripts say. But what about the time from the Old Testament until 1000 A.D.? Is it reliable? We see the reliability of the Old Testament in the methods used to copy the text from one manuscript to the next. The manuscripts of the Old Testament were copied by hand, but they were not whispered from one person to the next, where the listener hoped that he heard the right words. Manuscripts were carefully copied by scribes who compared the new text to the previous one. If they discovered an error in copying, the new manuscript was destroyed, and they started over. This helped ensure the accuracy of the text from one generation of manuscripts to the next. On top of this, as manuscripts began to age, the text could become faint, and the manuscript itself could develop holes. Before the text was unreadable, it would be carefully copied, and then the worn manuscript would be destroyed. The purpose of this destruction was to ensure that someone did not copy from a partial manuscript and make a mistake in trying to fill in the missing pieces. But this also explains why we do not have many old manuscripts of the Old Testament today.
The process of copying the text lends great weight to the reliability of Scripture, but one of the greatest evidences of the reliability of Scripture comes from the last century. In 1947, one of the greatest discoveries of the Biblical record was discovered by a young Arab goat-herder who was looking for a lost goat in some caves near the Dead Sea and who found broken pottery and ancient Biblical manuscripts in the caves. Later named the Dead Sea Scrolls, these Biblical manuscripts (as well as other commentaries and historical records) dated from around the 4th century B.C. to around the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans. The remarkable thing about these manuscripts is that they prove the reliability of the Old Testament text, being virtually identical to the Masoretic text of more than 1,000 years later. These manuscripts were basically put in a time capsule for about 2,000 years, and the Bible was carefully copied from other manuscripts over that 2,000 years. When the manuscripts in the time capsule were pulled out, they say the same thing that our Bible today says. Our church, along with a couple other churches from our area, had the chance to see some of the Dead Sea Scrolls at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City recently. The manuscripts on display were of a more fragmentary nature, as time has worn them away. In these pieces, the Biblical portions still show the reliability of our Bible today. But some of the more remarkable finds (that aren’t on display in Salt Lake) include the well-known Isaiah Scroll, measuring 24 feet long and containing the entire book of Isaiah. Discoveries like these prove the reliability of Scripture, as they show that the Bible we have today is reliable and accurate.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls actually excited those scholars who were skeptical of the Bible, as they anticipated that the discovery would prove that the Bible had been changed over time. But they were sorely disappointed. As Harold Scanlin said in his book The Dead Sea Scrolls & Modern Translations of the Old Testament, “Those who anticipated some revolutionary revelations which would require dramatic changes in the Old Testament will be disappointed. The textual evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in fact, confirms the general reliability and stability of the text of the Old Testament as we have it today, while at the same time offers evidence of important early witnesses to textual variants.”** Instead of disproving the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the tedious care the Hebrew scribes used in copying the manuscripts of the Bible, show the reliability of the Bible that we have today, as they prove that the Bible has not been changed or corrupted over time.
But ultimately, the evidence for the reliability of the Bible comes from God Himself. Psalm 138:2 says, “I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.” The psalmist said that God has magnified His Word even above His name. God has magnified His Word, and He has preserved it today. No book in history has been attacked more than the Bible, yet we can see from the clear record of history that God truly has preserved His Word, just as He said that He would. The Bible that we have in our hands today is reliable.
**The reference to textual variants refers to minor differences in the text. While manuscripts do contain slight differences, these variants do not alter the meaning or the reliability of the text. The vast majority of these variants are simply changes in the spelling of particular words, even as the spelling of words change over time.