This is a quite complicated question, not least because of the very nature of the book. The Bible is often described as a library of books and this is very true. It was written over a period of about 1500 years with around 40 different authors making contributions. So to answer the question properly we need to break it down:
- How do we know that the Bible we have is true to the original?
- How do we know that what happened in the Bible really occurred?
- How can we be sure that the Bible truly is from God?
1. How do we know that the Bible we have is true to the original?
First let’s deal with the Old Testament (OT). We know that the Jews had very strict laws for copying their scriptures. The rules dictated what they wore when scribing, what ink they used and, most importantly for us, how they checked their work. Scribes had to count words and letters on every page to ensure there were no errors and they discarded any sheets with mistakes. What this means is that the OT has been passed down with extremely high fidelity.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain at least parts of nearly all the OT books and they show only the most minor of differences from what we have now. Given that these scrolls date to the time of Jesus, we can be sure that the OT we have is the same as that which Jesus read from.
In addition we have the Septuagint that dates back to the 3rd century BC. Whilst this is a Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, it can be used to verify that there are no major differences.
When we come to the New Testament (NT) things aren’t quite as straightforward. The same copying rules weren’t applied by the early Christians so there are more variances, but we have three main lines of evidence:
- We have a number of different ancient manuscripts of which some date back to the 4th century AD
- We have the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Greek NT from 382AD
- We have early Christian writings that quote from the NT
These separate roads converge to give us a very high confidence in the texts we have (although there are some areas where slightly different renditions of verses are found).
Putting all this together we can say that our modern Bibles are to all intents and purposes ‘true’ to the original.
2. How do we know that what happened in the Bible really occurred?
Again the complexity of the Bible means that this isn’t a straightforward question to answer. In some places it reads in clearly historical terms, in others it is definitely allegorical, and there are bits where it can be difficult to discern precisely how the text should be taken.
However, archaeology has verified the Bible’s historical context time and time again. The Bible concerns the lives of real people, although it is true that the further back in time we go the more scarce becomes the evidence left behind. There are many dedicated books on the subject for the interested reader to look into.
Perhaps of greater interest are the more extraordinary events in the Bible. Can we be sure that miracles happened? Well, this will always be a matter of faith (see last section), but let’s take as an example the greatest miracle: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
It’s an extraordinary claim but the Bible backs it up with evidence:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
It’s tempting to be sceptical and say ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’, but that doesn’t hold when you think about the horrific persecution these people went through. Many of the first believers died because of the truth they preached. If they knew that it was all a lie, and Jesus hadn’t been raised, they would have been fools to suffer so much.
We also have the non-Biblical record of the historian Josephus:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day. (Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3 (online here))
3. How can we be sure that the Bible truly is from God?
In the final analysis this will always be a matter of faith:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
But as we have seen, this is not a blind faith. There are a number of other avenues that we have not yet considered. These testify to the divine authorship of the Bible:
- The library of books becomes a whole as we read it. Themes that begin in Genesis continue down the centuries and are developed throughout the canon of scripture.
- The Bible contains prophetic messages that have been shown to have come true.
- Just as important as these, but a little less tangible, is the inward testimony of the believer. The Bible fits into every fold of the human heart and as such can be recognised as a message from God.
Alan Hayward, God’s truth! A Scientist Shows Why It Makes Sense To Believe The Bible.
Rob J Hyndman (ed), The Way of Life, chapter 2. Reasons to Believe. 2002.
Islip Collyer, Vox Dei: the voice of God (1921) (not currently online; available to buy)