While the Bible is the best-selling, most widely distributed book of all time, there are also many skeptics who raise objections to its veracity. With most historical accounts, we tend to accept them without question, unless they seem highly improbable. Then additional evidence is usually expected.
When it comes to the Bible, there is a lot of controversy over what constitutes sufficient evidence for some of the extraordinary events recorded. Ultimately, if the Bible is truly of divine origin, as it claims (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21), the best evidence would seem most likely to arise from that same source. However, before we look into that, there is also some significant supporting evidence to consider.
The Mountain of Manuscripts
The Bible stands far and above all other works of antiquity due to the abundance and quality of the manuscripts available for comparison. Scholars use a science known as textual criticism, which is “the technique of restoring texts as nearly as possible to their original form.” The more copies that are available for a document, the higher the confidence in the reliability of that text.
For the New Testament, 5,856 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts and an additional 18,130 manuscripts in other languages have been cataloged. In contrast with other ancient books, New Testament scholar Dan Wallace states,
We have more than 1,000 times the manuscript data for the New Testament than we do for the average Greco-Roman author. Not only this, but the extant manuscripts of the average classical author are no earlier than 500 years after the time he wrote.
The earliest surviving copies of the New Testament are mere decades from the time they were written.
The Providential Preservation
Scholars estimate that textual criticism has been able to restore the New Testament text to 99.5% similarity with the originals. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946-56 added confidence about the reliability of the manuscripts as well. Prior to their discovery, the oldest manuscript copies for the Old Testament were from the 9th century AD.
Since the Dead Sea Scrolls are from the 1st-3rd centuries BC, they provided an opportunity for comparison and, ultimately, increased confidence in the reliability of the text. Hebrew scholar Millar Burrows writes, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration.”
The Historical Evidence for the Bible’s Central Message
1. Extraordinarily early: One of the criteria that historians use to evaluate the authenticity of a historical account is to determine how close the reporting is to the actual event. Legends take time to develop, but Christianity sprang up and grew right in the time and place where a multitude of eyewitnesses were able to confirm or deny the accounts being circulated, such as the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus.
Scholars have been able to trace the text in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 back to an earlier oral creed that dates to just a few years after the crucifixion. This extremely early record includes the Bible’s central message that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, appeared to the disciples, and then appeared to many other eyewitnesses, including a group of 500 people at one time.
2. Multiple eyewitness testimonies: For a record of Jesus’ life and teachings, there are four complete gospels that are all based on accounts of eyewitnesses. In Can We Trust the Gospels?, New Testament scholar Peter Williams states,
It is rarely appreciated that for us to have four Gospels about Jesus is remarkable….Jesus has more extended text about him, in generally closer proximity to his life, than his contemporary Tiberius, the most famous person in the then-known world.
Williams also cites numerous pieces of evidence that the gospels bear the marks of genuine eyewitness testimony. Their detailed knowledge of the people and places they describe would have been nearly impossible to discover by someone not living in that time and place. This evidence sets the gospels apart from the books in the pseudepigrapha such as the Gospel of Thomas, which gives us a good example of the lack of details that would be present if the gospels were simply made up centuries later.
3. Extrabiblical confirmation: A number of facts, central to the Bible’s core, can also be found in ancient, non-Christian sources, such as Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, and others. Williams says these sources confirm basic facts such as “Christ’s death under Pontius Pilate in Judaea…that Christ was worshiped as God early on, that Christ’s followers often experienced persecution, that Christians spread far and fast,” etc. One of the Apostle John’s students, Polycarp, is an important link to the original disciples. Additional sources include the Jewish Talmud, Suetonius, Serapion, Thallus, Phlegon, Lucian, and the early church fathers.
4. Genuineness of belief in the appearances of Jesus: Many unresolved enigmas stand witness in the historical record for those who deny the resurrection. For example, the first century Jew Saul of Tarsus had a sudden, inexplicable conversion to Christ and his subsequent preaching of the gospel under heavy persecution contributed to an explosion of growth in Christianity. The Bible answers the mystery of what happened by recording an encounter Saul had with the risen Jesus (Acts 9:1-9).
Notably, Jesus’ family believed they had seen him alive after his death. The gospels report that during Jesus’ ministry his brothers “did not believe in him” (John 7:5; Mark 3:20-21). After the resurrection, we see that the brothers of Jesus traveled with their wives, spreading the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:5). Josephus records that Jesus’ brother James was sentenced to stoning for his faith in Christ. Jesus’ disciples were also persecuted for preaching about Christ and at least a number of them were killed, demonstrating the genuineness of their beliefs.
The Fulfilled Prophecies
Many people have been persuaded of the divine nature of the Bible after studying the subject of biblical prophecies in more detail. There are hundreds of prophecies woven throughout the Bible that have been fulfilled in stunning detail. Arguably, one of the greatest prophecies about Jesus was written in 700 BC and is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
This passage tells of a righteous servant of God who would suffer and die and come back to life. Intricate details that mirror the life of Christ include that he would be rejected by many, his appearance disfigured, silent before his oppressors, led like a lamb to the slaughter, put to death for the sins of the people, buried with the rich, able to prolong his days, and be exalted because he bore the sins of many.
According to the Messianic Jewish ministry, Jews for Jesus, “countless” Jews have been heavily influenced by this chapter to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. They are often not aware of this text because it has been left out of the Jewish synagogue calendar readings, even though the first half of the chapter immediately preceding this section and the chapter immediately after are included. Some sources allege it was left out on purpose due to the controversy it aroused.
The Spirit’s Testimony
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). He also promised that after his departure, he would send the Holy Spirit who would testify about him (John 15:26). Over the past 2000 years, multitudes of people have noticed something special about the words in the Bible when they have set themselves to reading it.
They have experienced the words being “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and “like fire” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Bible says the Holy Spirit reveals the wisdom of God to those who are believers in Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). There are many warnings in Scripture to not harden our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s voice (Hebrews 3:7-19).
On a personal note, the spiritual realities that the Bible talks about have been congruent with my life experience, such as the teaching about our sinful nature, spiritual warfare, how to gain a new life in Christ and grow in him, spiritual gifts, and how to pray according to God’s will.
On a regular basis, I experience answers to my prayers. I also frequently experience the Holy Spirit bringing to my mind verses I have previously studied that are applicable for myself or someone else for specific situations. I have occasionally witnessed miracles and healings.
All of these spiritual revelations have confirmed the truth of the Bible to me. The following resources may be of help to those who are continuing to seek additional supporting evidence, but, ultimately, in order to believe the wisdom of God revealed in the Bible, a person must be born again by the Spirit of God (John 3:3-8).
ehrmanproject.com, Handbook of Biblical Archaeology, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology.
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Jessica Miller is the pastor’s wife and outreach director at Bean Blossom Community Church in Indiana, where she loves serving the Lord together with her husband, Jeff. Prior to marriage, her perspective on life was radically altered while living as a single woman in the Middle East. She is passionate about growing in her relationship with the Lord and pointing others to the truth. Her degrees are in biblical studies and counseling and she carries a special passion for cross-cultural ministries. She enjoys learning, traveling, and creating. She tweets and blogs from time to time.