Essay: Can the Bible Be Trusted?

This is an essay that I wrote for a class at Big Sky Bible Institute all the way back in 2008.

When trying to determine if the Bible can be trusted, the first thing we must do is examine the scriptures and decide for ourselves if they contain any errors. But first, what is the definition of an error?

What Is an Error?

An error is essentially something that is stated incorrectly, or a statement that exists which is in direct contradiction to a known fact. However, apparent errors in grammar or spelling do nothing to erode scriptures reliability, for grammar and spelling are simply human conventions, things that humans have come up with, and which are subject to change over the course of time. 

Also, phenomenological language and figures of speech do not constitute errors in scripture. All languages have examples of figures of speech and phenomenological language, and there is no reason that they could not be included in the scriptures as well. 

For instance, in Joshua 10:13, it states that “the sun stood still.” Now, does that really mean that the sun stood still? Well, it cannot have, as we know for a fact that the earth is constantly rotating, creating the illusion of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. A more accurate assessment would have been “the earth ceased to rotate on its axis,” or something of that nature.

So then, what about these so-called errors? Some people hold the opinion that Exodus 33:20 and Exodus 33:11 contradict each other by saying that on the one hand, no one can see God and live, and on the other that God talked with Moses face to face. In actual fact, “face to face” simply is a phrase that is intended to show that they were talking personally, and that Moses could see some of God’s glory, but not actually God himself. Some people claim that there are contradictions in the Mosaic Law, while most of those examples have to do with what the Israelites were to do in the wilderness compared with how they were to act in the promised land.

However, I firmly believe that scripture is inerrant. “Inerrant,” as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, means “incapable of erring, infallible” or “containing no errors.” The implications of this is that God gave the whole Bible to us through the people who wrote it down (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Bible was “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and as such, it is without error in any of the assertions that it makes in the original documents. They have “adequately and accurately” written everything that God’s Holy Spirit gave them to write. By adequately and accurately, I mean to say that they did not mess anything up, and that it was recorded with the correct language in order to be “…everything we need for life and godliness…” (2 Peter 1:3). 

Errors have come down through the process of copying and translation, and some things have gone missing. However, I believe, and I think it is supported by scripture (see above), that in the original documents, the Bible was inerrant. This idea of inerrancy is basically a logical conclusion based on God’s character, and what He has revealed about Himself in Scripture. In 1st John 5:20, it states that God is true, and this truth must extend to his words laid down in the Bible, as it says in Titus 1:2 “…God, who does not lie….” Furthermore, in John 17:17, it explicitly states that “…your word is truth.” While it may not be entirely legitimate to argue the case of the Bible’s inerrancy from the Scriptures themselves, one must also at the same time realize the implications of a Holy Bible with major errors in it.

There are several differing opinions concerning inerrancy:

1. Some people hold absolute inerrancy, which essentially says that even the smallest minutia contained within the original text was true. 

2. The full inerrancy view states that the Bible is completely true, but that it is not specifically written with scientific and historical data in mind, but that when it makes assertions about those topics, those assertions are true. 

3. Limited inerrancy states that the biblical writers were correct on all matters pertaining explicitly to faith, but that they were limited in regards to anything else, including historical events and scientific data. 

4. And the most loose view of all, is that of inerrancy of purpose. It puts forth the opinion that the Bible is inerrant in its purpose to bring people to a saving knowledge in Jesus Christ, but that beyond this, it is more or less worthless. 

As I see it, the third and fourth views on inerrancy are entirely wrong, and holding such opinions could be dangerous indeed. I believe that I fall somewhere in between the views of absolute and full inerrancy, as I believe that God would not let simple mathematical mistakes, for instance, be recorded in the scriptures needlessly. However, I would be leery of the assertion that the Bible can verify and make sense of all of the minutia that it contains. While it is possible that all of the minutia is correct, we may not have been provided with all the knowledge that we need at this time in history to determine how it is, in fact, proved correct.

How, then, did the Old Testament come down to us living in the 21st century? The Old Testament originally came from the Jews. It was, and still is, their holy book, their revelation from God, which is written down in the TaNaK in Hebrew, and was translated into Greek in the Septuagint. The Jewish oral tradition also passed down the view of our modern 39 books of the Old Testament, in a slightly merged form of 24. Josephus records that the Jews kept to a list of 22 holy books, which, in actual fact, equals the 39 books currently held in the protestant Old Testament. So, Christians carry the same general view of the Old Testament, but they also add the New Testament to it to make up what is called the Bible.

The TaNaK
The Jews called the Old Testament the TaNaK. They derived the name from the three different sections that it is made of. The first section is the law, which in Hebrew is “torah,” thus the “T.” Secondly, “the prophets” in Hebrew is “”nebi’im.” The prophets are further divided into two subcategories: the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The “K” in “TaNaK” is “kethubim,” which means “the writings.” The writings are further divided into the three subcategories of poetry, the 5 megilloth (rolls), prophecy, and history. Included in all of these categories are the books that currently make up the protestant Old Testament, and this is the only version that I think is canonical.

The Biblical Canon
So how can I be so sure that these are the only books that are canonical? Well, firstly, these are the ones that were passed down through Jewish tradition, and are the ones included in the TaNaK. The fact that the Jews considered these books to be the Holy Scriptures for many hundreds of years is a very significant piece of evidence to support the view that these are, in fact, inspired. The Baba Bathra puts forth the view of 24 slightly merged books which equate to the 39 currently used. 

 Secondly, the original version of the Septuagint consisted of these books. Other books crept in further down the road, but there is significant evidence pointing to the fact that the Septuagint originally consisted of the books found in the TaNaK. 

 Thirdly, Josephus records the fact that the Jewish Scriptures consisted of 22 books, which is simply a list of the books in the TaNaK with a couple of the books merged together. In reality, he was listing all of the same books. 

 Also, the Jewish oral tradition only includes the books found in the TaNaK, and none of those found in the Apocrypha. 

 Fifthly and most importantly, Jesus Christ has made two references to what the accurate canon of the Bible consists of. One of the references appears in Luke 24:44 where He says “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms all refer to the three different sections of the TaNaK, thus giving those books credibility as the true canon. An even more blatant reference appears in both Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:50-51. Matthew 23:35 reads: “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Jesus is saying here that they will be responsible for all of the innocent people who were killed from Abel (Genesis) all the way through Zechariah (Chronicles, the last book of the TaNaK). 

 Now, there were many more righteous people killed during Maccabean period after Zechariah and before Christ came, but they were not held responsible for them. This is a direct reference to which books are truly canonical: The TaNaK, and not the Apocrypha, which was more or less written during the Maccabean period. In a nut shell, Jesus is saying that you will not be held responsible for those books! They are not revelation from God!

The Apocrypha
The Apocrypha started creeping into the Septuagint sometime before 400 AD, because the Christians at the time had very little contact with Jewish people. Some of them may had never even met a Jewish person, and so the Old Testament canon began to see some additions. 

At first this may have been due to the fact that these books were included just as interesting reading, and as an aid in understanding the background of the times. However, they really started becoming considered part of the canon of the western church when St. Augustine forced Jerome to include them in his translation called the Latin Vulgate. Jerome did not want to include them, but as St. Augustine controlled the western church, he had little choice. The Latin Vulgate was the official version of the western church for over 1,000 years, and eventually there was a papal decree that made the Apocrypha a mandatory part of the Roman Catholic canon. So, there is nothing to lead me to believe that these books were the inspired word of God.
The books that make up the Old and New Testament canon were transmitted down to today’s Christians in quite different fashions. The Old Testament was mainly transmitted via professional scribes who copied it. Many of the people of the time were not capable of reading and writing, so there were people specifically trained to copy the scriptures. These people were called scribes. This was their occupation, and as such they did a high quality, professional job. There were very stringent guidelines in place dictating how exactly the scribes were to go about copying the scriptures. For instance, they had to count all of the letters on a completed page, to verify that they had done an acceptable job. If they had more than three errors per page, they were required to start over. This ensured a very, very accurate transmission of the Old Testament down to current times.

On the other hand, the New Testament has had a much more convoluted transmission to modern times. No one is currently in possession of a copy of any of the New Testament autographs. However, many copies are still in existence. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament books were copied by many, many people creating over 5,400 currently in existence, which is many more than the number of Old Testament documents.

However, the fact that many different people were allowed to copy the documents created many more errors as they were copied and copied again. But, the fact that we have so many copies in existence negates this problem, as the scholars are able to compare all of the documents and get a very accurate idea of what the original autographs contained.

Textual Criticism
Now, there has to be a method of deciding which readings of the various texts are contradictions, and which were in the original autographs. This method is called “textual criticism.” Textual criticism, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary is “The study of manuscripts or printings to determine the original or most authoritative form of a text, especially of a piece of literature.”

To do a textual criticism one must first look in a Greek New Testament for a passage that is debatable. Second, look at the footnote for the passage in question, and note the letter grade (A, B, C, D) that the editors provided on the reliability of the reading. Then, examine the different manuscripts listed for evidence for the provided reading and against the provided reading. Basically, one must compare the three different types of evidences: the actual manuscripts, the early church fathers, and the other early versions/translations.

The most authoritative by far are the actual copied Greek manuscripts that are still in existence. Those must be evaluated on which family of documents they came from (Alexandrian being the best, Western being second best, and Byzantine being the worst) and the age of the document (the older the better). After that, move on to the early church fathers and the other early versions/translations. That is a brief summary of textual criticism.

Textual Criticism Case Study
I did a short textual criticism of 1 Peter 5:14. The word “amen” was in question, and the provided reading omitted the word. I checked, and the reliability of the given rating was only a “C” on the A-D scale (“A” being the best). Either way it is read, the editors really are not completely certain. I checked the end of 2nd Peter, and it included the word “amen,” but in brackets, to show that it also was in question.

Both the omit side and the add side had many documents from the Alexandrian family, and a couple from the Byzantine family. The dates on those documents ranged from the 4th century at the earliest all the way up until the 11th or 12th centuries at the latest. The division of dates was more or less equal for both sides of the argument. I arrived at the conclusion that it was difficult to tell which was the original reading in the autograph, but that if I had to choose one, I would probably choose to omit the “amen” (because that’s what the editors did).

Textual criticism is crucial, because it can help us decide if the translators did an accurate job with the text. Now, there are many, many different translations, and some people have been known to present the view that because there are so many, it is impossible to know what the Bible truly says. That view is false!
Wycliffe and Tyndale
Due to the language that this paper is being written in, the development of the English translations are the ones that will be covered in detail. The first English translation was made by Wycliffe in 1380, and updated in 1388. Wycliffe faced a great deal of persecution during the making of his translation. The church wanted to keep power in the hands of the priests and keep the common people in the dark.

Tyndale faced many of the same problems that Wycliffe encountered. He wrote his first translation in 1526, and the second version in 1530. Tyndale is talked about much more frequently than Wycliffe due to two reasons: Wycliffe wrote in middle English, Tyndale wrote in modern English; and Wycliffe translated from the Latin Vulgate, Tyndale translated from the Hebrew and Greek. The main point of interest are the manuscripts that they translated from. Since Tyndale translated from the original languages, his version was significantly more authoritative. The text was only translated once instead of twice.

After the Tyndale Bible, there were three more versions that came in rapid succession: the Coverdale Bible, the Matthew Bible, and the Great Bible. It is believed that the head translators for the Coverdale and Matthew Bibles were contributing translators under Tyndale. Coverdale was very influential in creating many different translations of the Bible. The Great Bible was made on request of the king at that time, because he wanted a very big Bible. Just a little later in 1960, the Geneva Bible came out, and this translation became very, very popular. It was the main Bible of choice all the way up until the Authorized Version of 1611.

The King James Version and the Majority Text
The Authorized Version is known today as the King James Version of the Bible. At the time, the King James Version was a very good translation. It was the most commonly used Bible for almost 400 years, and as such, made a very huge impact on the Christian world.

Measured on today’s standards, however, the KJV has one major flaw. The KJV was translated from what is called the “majority text,” which is a small collection of 12 texts from the medieval era. Today, there are so many more manuscripts that have been discovered, many of them predating the medieval documents by many hundreds of years. The NKJV and KJII as well as the KJV still use the majority text to this day. To do so when there are so many manuscripts which are more authoritative is not a wise decision.

Versions Based on the Eclectic Text
The majority of the modern versions today use what is called the “eclectic text.” The eclectic text is based on a greater number of manuscripts, most of which are significantly older than those used in the majority text. A popular example of an eclectic text is the USB Greek New Testament.

Several of the other popular examples of recent translations based on the eclectic text are the NASB and the NIV. I personally have grown up using the NIV, and it most definitely has its pros and cons. The version with the second highest sales (after the KJV), the NIV is an excellent version if you wish to read a Bible with language that flows really well and that can be used for study as well.

However, the NIV is what is called a dynamic equivalent. Unlike the KJV and the NASB, it is not translated word-for-word. The translators worked the version to make it flow better, and during that process, there are many instances of where the NIV is not very faithful to the literal understanding of the Greek text. The more time that I spend in Bible college, the more errors are becoming painfully obvious in the NIV.

Sometime in the near future I am going to invest in an NASB. The NASB is considered by many to be one of the most accurate literal translations of the Bible in existence today. The KJV is a very literal translation, but it is in a language that, ultimately, no longer exists, and is based on documents that are not as authoritative as those the NASB is translated from.

However, what the NASB gains in accuracy, it loses in flow. From the passages that I have read from it and what I have heard from others, in its extreme efforts to correctly mirror the original texts, it has become very choppy in the English.

So what translation is best? That is more-or-less a matter of personal opinion, but I personally am tending to think that owning both the NASB and the NIV (and possibly the Message) would be the best combination available; but to each his own.

In conclusion, this paper is not nearly an exhaustive look at the Bible. On the contrary, it hardly scratches the surface of whether or not the Bible can be trusted. However, the inerrancy of scriptures due to divine inspiration is a major argument in favor of Biblical trustworthiness.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the view of 39 books in the Old Testament canon, as are included in the Protestant Bible. Due to the processes that were involved, and the number of copies that have been uncovered, we can be quite certain that both the Old and New Testaments have been transmitted down to modern times in a very reliable fashion.

Due to the fact that textual criticism is no longer an absolute mystery, it is possible to determine with reasonable certainty whether or not the readings provided by modern translations do justice to the original documents.

Finally, the evolution of the current English versions leave us confident in the fact that today there are more accurate translations of the Bible in existence than in any other time in history. In actual fact, the Bible can indeed be trusted!

Works Cited
Lecture at Big Sky Bible Institute by Dr. Paul D. Wegner