There are many factors that give the Bible unparalleled moral and spiritual authority. The Old and New Testaments are deeply rooted in a historical and geographical record that is linked to laws, poetry, and predictions that express timeless life-changing wisdom. Even the parts of the Old Testament with parallels in Mesopotamian literature (the creation story, the story of the flood, etc.) are incomparably superior to the pagan versions.
1 Although it is an ancient document, its realism is stunning and contemporary. The records of the Bible portray people in all of their complexity and inconsistency, with not only their achievements but also their sins—and the consequences of their sins—clearly displayed.2 J. B. Phillips expressed in a few words what countless others have noticed about the New Testament: It has the “ring of truth.” There are few people of any religious tradition who are familiar with it that don’t hold it in high esteem. Further, the historical accuracy of Scripture has been demonstrated time and again—often to the surprise of skeptical scholars.
The authority of the Bible is by far the most well-attested document to come out of ancient times. The reliability of the Old Testament was confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a remarkable collection of ancient documents found preserved in caves in the Judean desert in the mid-20th century. The age of these documents, which included large portions of the Old Testament, was determined by several independent evidences, including:
- Carbon 14 tests made on the linen wrappings of the scrolls.
- Coins associated with the scrolls, which date from 325 BC to AD 68.
- The type of pottery found with the scrolls.
- Comparative paleography (science of handwriting), a science which has already been well-established for many generations.
- Linguistic analysis of Aramaic documents found in the caves.
What made the Dead Sea Scrolls such a remarkable find in confirmation of the reliability of the Old Testament was the fact that prior to their discovery the earliest text in Hebrew, the Masoretic text, dated only to the 10th century AD. Biblical scholar Gleason Archer noted that in spite of 1,000 years separating the Scrolls and the Masoretic Text, “The texts from Qumran proved to be word-for-word identical to our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted primarily of obvious slips of the pen and spelling alterations” (Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1974], p. 25).
Similarly, no serious scholar, Christian or non-Christian, has historical grounds to doubt that the modern New Testament—regardless of translation—corresponds closely to the original form in which it was written. In his book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell quotes a number of authorities on the reliability of our Bible. Here he quotes scholar A. T. Robertson:
“There are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for the other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Besides all this, much of the New Testament can be reproduced from the quotations of the early Christian writers.”
Historical evidence for the reliability of the text is overwhelming. But its spiritual authority can only be seen by someone who is seeking truth. It would require thousands of pages just to list the names of the outstanding people in every area of human endeavor who have looked to Scripture for their ultimate values. A random list of just a few might include:
- Philosophy: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard
- Science: Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal
- Music: J. S. Bach
- Literature: Dante Alighieri, John Donne, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R Tolkien, C. S. Lewis
- Politics: William Wilberforce, William Gladstone, Abraham Kuyper
The fact that the Bible provided the foundation for the personal values of some of the greatest figures of Western history doesn’t constitute a “proof” of its authority. But, along with the Bible’s age, textual reliability, and character as great literature, its appeal to such people certainly calls for an open-minded, respectful approach to its contents.
- Anglican physicist/theologian/priest John Polkinghorne remarks on the value of scholarly comparison between ancient biblical and Mesopotamian texts:
Those who disdain a scholarly engagement with the same text will also miss the fact that, though the accounts are clearly influenced to a degree by neighbouring Near Eastern cosmogonies, they differ in a most marked and important way from those other creation stories. It is deeply impressive that tales of conflict among the gods, with Marduk fighting Tiamath and slicing her dead body in half from which to form the earth and sky, are replaced by a sober account in which the one true God alone is the Creator, bringing creation into being by the power of the divine word. Equally significant is the insight that human beings are not destined to be the slaves of the gods (as in the Babylonian epic, Enuma Elish), but are created in the image of God and given a blessing so that they may fulfill the command, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 ). (Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality, pp. 44-45). Back To Article
- To have a clear understanding of biblical authority, it is important to understand the nature of biblical inspiration. Inspiration has two aspects. One is its authority in providing truth without error in the words of Scripture. Scripture is truly the written Word of God. The other aspect of inspiration is that it was written by human beings who wrote with their own vocabulary, cultural background, and personal style. This fact does not controvert inspiration. Just as Christ was both truly man and truly God, the divine element in inspiration doesn’t exclude the human limitations of the Bible’s writers. For a clear discussion of the topic of inerrancy from a theological perspective, we recommend that you buy or borrow a copy of Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology. This theology originally came out in a 3-volume set, but currently is being offered in one volume. His discussion of inerrancy can be found in chapter 10, “The Dependability of God’s Word: Inerrancy.” Back To Article