Is the Bible a Reliable Source of History?

We know with great accuracy what the books of the Bible originally said.

It amazes me that I still hear people claiming “the Bible has been retranslated and rewritten so many times. We cannot really know what it originally said.”  The example of a game of “telephone” is given, as if the Bible was translated from Greek to Latin to German to French to English in a series of translations that each may have substantially altered the meaning.  Those who make this argument reveal their ignorance.

The truth is that all of our newest translations have been translated directly from manuscripts in the original languages.  For the Old Testament, this is predominantly Hebrew with some sections of Aramaic.  For the New Testament, this is Koine Greek. Modern translations are produced by large teams of linguists and scholars from various backgrounds in order to accurately convey the ideas of the original authors.  The Bible has been put through no game of “telephone.”

In fact, our manuscript attestation for the New Testament is far better than that of any other work of antiquity.  To throw out the Bible on claims of unreliability and remain consistent we would have to throw out… every single historian and piece of literature in antiquity.

The Bible is consistent and historically accurate.

Many of the supposed historical inaccuracies in the Bible that were once concerning have been debunked by emerging historical knowledge.

Take for example the discrepancy between Daniel 1:1, which states that Nebuchadnezzar became king of Babylon in the 3rd year of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and Jeremiah 25:1, that states that it was the 4th year. Much was made of this problem until scholar R. Thiele highlighted two different systems for counting reigns in the Ancient Near East: the accession year system and the non-accession year system. Jeremiah counts the king’s accession year, Daniel doesn’t.

Take for another example the existence of the Hittites. Though mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible, there was no archaeological evidence of their civilization until a series of discoveries beginning in 1876.  Until that time, their inclusion in the Biblical narrative was used as proof of the fabrication of much of the historical narrative of the Israelites.  We now know that the Hittites were a prominent Near Eastern civilization in the 15th and 16th centuries B.C.

This example highlights the fact that proof for Biblical claims may not always be readily available, but this does not mean that the Bible is in error. Instead, man is.

Another popular example is that of Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, who set out for Asia Minor in order to prove that the historical details in the book of Acts were fabricated. After decades of research and archaeological discovery, Ramsay concluded that the details in the book were completely accurate. He recorded his findings in a work entitled The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament.

The truth is that the Bible is historically accurate in every detail. This is a feat that is humanly impossible, and demonstrates one of many unique and perfect qualities that the Holy Spirit has embedded in the word of God.

Choosing a Bible to Pick up and Read

A friend of mine recently got a new Bible. But unlike most printings of God’s word, this Bible does not have any chapter or verse markings whatsoever. It has no footnotes, no cross-references, no headings, and nothing in the margins, and the text is arranged in one column that takes up the entire page. It is also printed in four volumes, each one about the size and thickness of a typical library book.

Picking up a Bible like that might seem pretty strange, until we stop and consider that the chapters, verses, headings, and other study and reference tools in our modern Bibles were indeed put there by man centuries or even millennia after the original works were complete.

As I flipped through one of the volumes of this Bible, I was struck by the way this arrangement of the text altered my perception of it. No longer did the Bible feel like an academic reference book to be squinted at, or digested in little doses. It felt like a powerful story to be read, perhaps even for hours at a time.

There is no doubt that the way any text is arranged, including the Biblical text, can affect the way we respond to it.

Translations are another factor in our experience of God’s word.

One translation might make it a priority to translate the same Greek word into the same English word as consistently as possible, and that might help us to recognize patterns and recurring themes in the text more easily, but in the process it will sacrifice some ability to account for the effect of the context of a word on its meaning.

Another translation might make literalness a top priority, allowing us to focus on the specific role of each word in a sentence, and the specific definition of each word as it relates to the overlying message. Of course, this approach may yield a text that is more difficult to read and comprehend quickly.

Another translation might seek to draw out the ideas in a text using more contemporary styles and expressions in order to make the text easier for our modern minds to understand quickly, but it may give up some of the specificity present in the original language.

Translations lie all across this entire spectrum, from works so literal they are barely readable, to works so liberal in translation technique that they would be more aptly referred to as a paraphrase or a commentary than a legitimate translation.

So how do we decide which text to open?

Here are some tips on selecting a Bible text to read from:

  • Do not choose just one text to use exclusively. We have access to so many different translations and arrangements. Why settle for just one approach when you can consult many?
  • Use a Bible that corresponds to your intended purpose.
    • If you are engaged in a topical study that requires you to jump around frequently and look up various references from commentaries, using a Bible without verse markings could be a nightmare.   On the other hand, if you just want to dive into the narrative without any distractions, the plain uninterrupted text could be perfect.
    • If you are concerned with what the specific grammar in a particular passage can teach us, be sure to use a “word for word” translation.  On the other hand, if you want to listen more passively for the ideas and the flow of a particular work, and idea-for-idea translation or even a paraphrase may be more appropriate.
  • Read the introduction written by the translators. You may have to read between the lines a bit, but this will tell you which principles were most important to the translators for this particular project.
  • Try something new! Getting a new Bible or looking at a translation you do not spend much time in can give you a fresh perspective and a renewed interest. You may notice something that you missed before.