What Makes the Bible So Unique?
1. The Bible is Unique in its Amazing Consistency and Unity
- Historical works
- Legal documents
- Personal correspondence
.. by a variety of writers, from poor to wealthy, from many walks of life.1
And yet, the Bible is amazingly unique in its “unity” – the Old Testament prefigures the coming of the Messiah documented in the New Testament, and the books of the New Testament continually refer back to and fulfill the writings of the Old Testament. In fact, the Bible itself asserts that “All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16).
2. The Bible’s Reliability is Attested to by Thousands of Ancient Manuscripts
Old Testament Ancient Manuscripts
Although the Old Testament does not have quite the number of ancient manuscripts that the New Testament has, the number of documents available is still quite remarkable (given the time span of 2-3,000 years that these documents had to endure).
Collection Number of Manuscripts
Benjamin Kennicott (1776-1780), published by Oxford
Giovanni de Rossi (1784-1788)
List of 731
Second Firkowitch Collection, Lenningrad 1,582 Biblical manuscripts and Masora on parchment, plus
1,200 Hebrew manuscripts in the
British Museum 161 Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts Oxford University, the Bodleian Library 146 Old Testament manuscripts, with a large number of fragments
Dead Sea Scrolls (300 B.C to 100 A.D.)
A complete copy of Isaiah, plus plus thousands of fragments (representing every book except Ester – see below)
New Testament Supporting Manuscripts
One of the criteria for the authority of ancient documents is the extent of supporting ancient manuscripts – the more the better, and the closer to the time of the original documents as possible. In light of these tests, the New Testament is the best attested to work from the ancient world.5
- It has by far the greatest number of existing ancient manuscripts. Ancient classical works are attested to by very few ancient copies, usually less than 10. In contrast, the New Testament is attested to by over 5,000 full or partial Greek manuscripts. In addition, thousands of other copies in other languages exist, especially Latin.5
Ancient Greek Manuscripts Other Ancient Manuscripts
- Unicals: 307
- Minuscules: 2,860
- Lectionaries: 2,410
- Papri: 109
- SUBTOTAL: 5,686
- Latin Vulgate: 10,000+
- Ethiopic: 2,000+
- Slavic: 4,101
- Armenian: 2,587
- Syriac Pashetta: 350+
- Bohairic: 100
- Arabic: 75
- Old Latin: 50
- Anglo Saxon: 7
- Gothic: 6
- Sogdian: 3
- Old Syriac: 2
- Frankish: 1
- SUBTOTAL: 19,284+
The total number of ancient manuscripts supporting the New Testament amounts to 24,970+. Far more than any other book of antiquity. And while it is true that “there are no known extent (currently existing) original manuscripts of the Bible, the abundance of manuscript copies make it possible to reconstruct the original with virtually complete accuracy.”5
According to Biblical scholar John Warwick Montgomery,
“to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.“5
- The New Testament manuscripts exhibit a relatively small gap of time between the original writings and the earliest copies. While other classical works usually exhibit gaps of literally hundreds of years, the earliest New Testament manuscript copies date within 100-150 years of the originals. A few examples:The Bodmer Papyrus II (A.D. 150-200), purchased in the 1950s and 60s from a dealer in Egypt, is located in the Bodmer Library of World Literature. It contains most of John’s Gospel, and dates from about 200 A.D. or earlier. P 72, the earliest copy of Jude and the two epistles of Peter, are included, as well as P 75 -a single codex of Luke and John. Scholars date P 75 to between 175 and 225 A.D.The Chester Beatty Papyri, discovered in 1931, contains most ALL of the New Testament. And it is dated to within 100-150 years of the original documents.The Codex Sinaiticus, shown to Constantin von Tischendorf on his third visit to the Monastery of Saint Catherine, at the foot ofMount Sinai in Egypt, in 1859, contains a complete copy of the New Testament. It is dated roughly 250 years after the originals.
- It was so often quoted by the early church fathers in the 1st and 2nd centuries, that the entire New Testament can virtually be reconstructed from their quotations alone!
Early Church Writer Number of N.T. Quotes Justin Martyr 330 Irenaeus 1,819 Clement (Alex.) 2,406 Origen 17,992 Tertullian 7,258 Hippolytus 1,378 Eusebius 5,176
Grand Total Quotations:
These quotations by the early church fathers give strong support for the New Testament canon of 27 books, to the exclusion of others documents. Its amazing how God ensured that His Word would survive for generations to come: – even if all of the early manuscripts were not available, we would still be able to reconstruct the entire New Testament from these very quotations – nearly intact and complete! 5
A Look at the Bible’s Composition & Origins
The Books of the Old Testament
Note: Mention is made in the right hand column of the number of manuscripts found among the “Dead Sea Scrolls”, which have thus far further established the reliability of the Old Testament (albeit many of which are still under study).
|Canonical Division||Old Testament Book||Number of Qumran Manuscripts|
|Former Prophets||1-2 Samuel||4|
|Twelve (Minor Prophets)||10+1?|
|The Five Scrolls||Song of Songs||4|
According to scholars, the Old Testament has shown to be reliably accurate in three ways4:
- Because of the manner of textual transmission (the accuracy of the copying process) down through history
- Due to the confirmation of the Old Testament by hard archaeological evidence
- By corroborating documentary evidence uncovered through archaeology
Amazingly Accurate Textual Transmission
While it is true that we do not have the original documents of the Old Testament, the accuracy of the Hebrew copyists is astonishing when comparing the scriptures to other literature of antiquity.
For example, while you can find wide variations in the few copies of the “Egyptian Book of the Dead”, the discovery of the Great Isaiah Scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls amazed the scholarly community:
“Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than than the oldest dated manuscript previous known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest.”(Archer, SQT, 23-25).4
Supported by Archaeological Evidence
Numerous discoveries have confirmed the historical accuracy of the New and Old Testament documents. Many books have been written on the subject, and there are some excellent web sites devoted to this – for example, visit the Biblical Archeological Society.
Rather than refuting the biblical record, archaeology had consistently supported the biblical record. Here are just a few examples:
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – once thought to be spurious until evidence revealed that all five of the cities mentioned in the Bible were in fact centers of commerce in the area and were situated as the Scriptures describe. Evidence points to earthquake activity, and that the various layers of the earth were disrupted and hurled into the air. Bitumen is plentiful in the area, and an accurate description would be that “brimstone” (bituminous pitch) had fallen down on those cities that had rejected God. There is also evidence that layers of sedimentary layer rock have been molded together by intense heat. (Geisler, BECA, 50-52).4
- Confirmation of “The House of David”. Avaraham Birum (Biram, BAR, 26) speaks of a recent discovery: “A remarkable inscription from the ninth century BCE that refers to both the [House of David], and to the [King of Israel]. This is the first time that the name of David has been found in any inscription outside the Bible.”
- The Tower of Babel. There is now considerable scientific evidence that the world at one time did indeed have one language. Sumerian literature alludes to this fact several times, and today’s linguists find this theory useful in categorizing languages. But what of the “Tower of Babel”? Archaeology has discovered that Ur-Nammu, king of Ur from about 2,044 to 2,007 B.C., supposedly received orders to build a great ziggurat (temple tower) as an act of worship to the moon god Nannat. Once panel discovered shows him setting out with a mortar basket to begin construction of the great tower. Another states that the erection of the tower offended the gods, so they threw down what men had built, scattered them abroad, and made their speech strange. This is remarkably similar to the record in the Bible.
Of course there are many other examples of archaeological evidence that could be listed. But this should not surprise us, if indeed the Bible is what it claims to be – the Word of God. We should expect that archaeology would be consistent with and confirm His Word.
Corroborated by Other Documentary Evidence
Finally, there is much corroborating documentation to support the Old Testament.
- Various Old Testament translations The Septuagint, or LXX – a textual tradition from the third century B.C.
Samaritan Pentateuchal tradition – dating from perhaps the fifth century B.C.
The Masoretic text
- Aramaic Targums (written forms appear about A.D. 500) – paraphrases of the Old Testament in the Aramaic language
- The Mishnah (A.D. 200) – a digest of all the oral laws from the time of Moses.
- The Gemara (Palestinian A.D. 200) – written in Aramaic, an expanded commentary on the Mishnah
- The Midrash (100 B.C – A.D. 300) – doctrinal studies of the Old Testament Hebrew text.
The Books of the New Testament
Epistles of Paul
Evidence that New Testament Writers were Primary Sources
The writers of the New Testament documents wrote as eyewitnesses or from firsthand information. For example:
Luke 1:1-3: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them unto us, it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus.”
2 Peter 1:16: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”
1 John 1:3: “That which we have seen and heard we declare unto you …”
John 19:35: “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.”
The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of first hand testimony, and they appealed to it time and again in their writings.
Evidence for Early Dating of the New Testament
Most scholars agree that the New Testament documents were NOT written a century or more after the events, but during the lifetimes of those involved in the accounts themselves.6 This means that while the gospels, the letters of Paul, and the other epistles were circulating among the churches during the first century (A.D. 33 – A.D. 90, many of those who had seen the risen Christ were still alive and could corroborate the truthfulness or falsity of documents. The NT writers confidently appeal to the knowledge of the readers concerning the facts they had recorded: “As you yourselves know…” (Acts 2:22).
According to New Testament scholars cited by Josh McDowell in his book “New Evidence that Demands a Verdict“, there is strong evidence that the four gospels and Paul’s letter were all written during the lifetimes of those who would have witnessed the events of Jesus’ life:
N.T. Books Conservative Dating Source Paul’s Epistles A.D. 50-66 Hiebert Matthew A.D. 70-80 Harrison Mark A.D. 50-60
Luke Early 60’s Harrison John A.D. 80-100 Harrison
According to William Foxwell Albright, one of the world’s foremost biblical archaeologists,
“We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.”4
Corroborating Evidence for Those Who Wrote the New Testament
The Bible declares that all Scripture is inspired by God, and men chosen by God were moved by His Spirit as they wrote His Word. The question remains however as to the human authorship of the various books. Here is early first and second century corroborating evidence for the authorship of the various New Testament books:
The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Eusebius, in his “Ecclesiastical History” 111.39, quotes the writing of Papias (A.D. 130), bishop of Heirapolis, in which Papias quotes “the Elder” (who most believe to be the Apostle John) as saying the following about how the Gospel of Mark was written:
“The Elder used to say this also: ‘Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he (Peter) mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake writing down in this way some things as he (Peter) mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, not to include any false statement among them.”
Regarding Matthew’s Gospel, Papias records:
“Matthew recorded the oracles in the Hebrew (ie., Aramaic) tongue.”
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (A.D. 180), was a student of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (martyred in A.D 156). Irenaeus, a disciple of John the Apostle, has been a Christian for 86 years when he wrote about the authority of the four gospels:
“the gospel is the pillar and base of the Church and the breath of life, so it is natural that it should have four pillars..”
He further recounted how the other Gospels came about:
“Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews (ie., Jews) in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, (ie., their death), Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His breast (a reference to John 13:25 and 21:20), himself produced his Gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.”
The History: Acts
According to the Muratorian Cannon fragment, A.D. 190, “…the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Lukein one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly-i.e., that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice-by the omission33 of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city-Rome-to Spain.”
The Epistles of Paul
According to the Muratorian Cannon (A.D. 190):
“As to the epistles34 of Paul, again, to those who will understand the matter, they indicate of themselves what they are, and from what place or with what object they were directed. He wrote first of all, and at considerable length, to he Corinthians, to check the schism of heresy; and then to the Galatians, to forbid circumcision; and then to the Romans on the rule of the Old Testament Scriptures, and also to show them that Christ is the first object35 in these;-which it is needful for us to discuss severally,36 as the blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name, in this order: the first to the Corinthians, the second to the Ephesians, the third to the Philippians, the fourth to the Colossians, the fifth to the Galatians, the sixth to the Thessalonians, the seventh to the Romans. Moreover, though he writes twice to the Corinthians and Thessalonians for their correction, it is yet shown-i.e., by this sevenfold writing-that there is one Church spread abroad through the whole world. And John too, indeed, in the Apocalypse, although he writes only to seven churches, yet addresses all. He wrote, besides these, one to Philemon, and one to Titus, and two to Timothy, in simple personal affection and love indeed; but yet these are hallowed in the esteem of the Catholic Church, and in the regulation of ecclesiastical discipline.”The Muratorian Cannon fragment, A.D. 190
Evidence of forged documents circulating as though written by Paul (but rejected because of this):
“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey.” The Muratorian Cannon fragment, A.D. 190
The General Epistles: of James, Peter, John, and Jude
“The Epistle of Jude, indeed,37 and two belonging to the above-named John-or bearing the name of John-are reckoned among the Catholic epistles.” The Muratorian Cannon fragment, A.D. 190
The Muratorian Cannon fragment, A.D. 190: “We receive also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter, though some amongst us will not have this latter read in the Church.”
What Was the Criteria for Acceptance into the Canon?
From the writings of biblical and church historians we can discern at least five principles that were used to determine whether or not a writing was to be included in “the canon”4. If the book met these criteria, it became part of the cannon. If not, it ended up being excluded.
1. Was the book written by a prophet of God? The notion was that if the book was written by an authentic prophet of God (Isaiah, Zechariah, et.), then it was “the Word of God.”
2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? Frequently miracles separated the true prophets from the false ones. For example, Moses was given miraculous powers to prove to the Egyptians that he was called by God. (Ex 4:1-9) Elijah triumphed over false prophets by a supernatural act (1 Kings 18). Jesus was attested to by God “with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him” (Acts 2:22).
3. Did the message tell the truth about God? God cannot contradict Himself (2 Cor 1:17-18), nor can He utter what is false (Heb 6:18). Hence no book with false claims can be the Word of God. For these reasons, the early church fathers maintained the policy “if in doubt, throw it out”.
4. Does it come with the power of God? The apostles, disciples, and early church fathers believed that the Word of God is “living and active” (Heb 4:12). As a result, it ought to have a transforming force for bringing people to the faith (1 Per 1:23), as well as building them up (2 Tim 3:17). Those that became part of the canon manifested these qualities; those that did not failed in this and other areas.
5. Was it accepted by the people of God? The people in the best position to know a book’s prophetic credentials were those who knew the prophet who wrote it. The four gospels were accepted early on because those living at the time knew the writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They also accepted Acts due to Luke’s authorship. Paul’s writings were accepted as He was known and well regarded as one of the Apostles, although the last to come to that state. The other epistles were accepted due to having been written by disciples (actually the Lord’s half brothers) – James, and Jude. Thus, when a book was received, collected, read, and used by the people of God as the Word of God, it was regarded as canonical.
Development of the Canon and The New Testament
In contrast to what “The Da Vinci Code” and other modern sources would have you believe, the list of books of the New Testament were settled and recognized as authoritative by the church long before the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
During the second century many “cults” started to spring up among the early Christian community, their leaders seeking to draw away many from the faithful. One of these groups, led by a man from Asia Minor named Montanus, claimed to have received revelations from God about the apocalypse. By this time, the fours gospels and the writings of Paul had received widespread acceptance among the church as being authoritative – the problem was they hadn’t been bound into a single book yet.
Montanus took the opportunity to claim authority for his revelations, hoping to gain acceptance along with the four gospels and Paul’s writings. The church met this challenge in 190 A.D. by defining what was called the “Muratorian Canon“3, after its modern discover. This canon, dated to 190 A.D., is nearly identical to the New Testament we have today — the difference being that it included two books that were later excluded from the canon – 1) the Revelation of Peter, and 2) the Wisdom of Solomon. By the time of the Council of Nicea (in 325 A.D.), the New Testament canon was pretty much settled – the only debate was concerning a few books, chief of which were Hebrews and Revelation (due to questions of authorship).
A.D. 367 – Athenasius of Alexandria
Athenasius, one of the early church fathers, provided us with the earliest list of the SAME New Testament canon we have today in one of his letters to the local churches. Extracts from this 39th Festal Letter, written in AD 367, are below. This is very same list of books that we have today in our New Testament.
“Continuing, I must without hesitation mention the scriptures of the New Testament; they are the following: the fourGospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after them the Acts of the Apostles and the seven so-calledcatholic epistles of the apostles — namely, one of James, two of Peter, then three of John and after these one of Jude. In addition there are fourteen epistles of the apostle Paulwritten in the following order: the first to the Romans, thentwo to the Corinthians and then after these the one to the Galatians, following it the one to the Ephesians, thereafter the one to the Philippians and the one to the Colossiansand two to the Thessalonians and the epistle to theHebrews and then immediately two to Timothy , one to Titus and lastly the one to Philemon. Yet further the Revelation of John“.
“These are the springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself with the words contained in them. In them alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no one add anything to them or take anything away from them… “
How Did the Early Church View the “Other Books”?
Athenasius, one of the most prolific of the early church fathers, makes a distinction between the “divine writings” of the New Testament and “other books” in circulation at the time. He divides these “other books” into two groups:
- He indicates that a small collections should not be recognized as part of “the canon”, but areacceptable as “reading matter” for instruction.
- Others – ie., “the apocrypha” – should not be made mention, since they are a “fabrication of the heretics” intended to deceive.
Here is his characterization of the “other books” outside the canon:
“But for the sake of greater accuracy I add, being constrained to write, that there are also other books besides these, which have not indeed been put in the canon, but have been appointed by the Fathers as reading-matter for those who have just come forward and which to be instructed in the doctrine of piety: the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobias, the so-called Teaching [Didache] of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. And although, beloved, the former are in the canon and the latter serve as reading matter, yet mention is nowhere made of the apocrypha; rather they are a fabrication of the heretics, who write them down when it pleases them and generously assign to them an early date of composition in order that they may be able to draw upon them as supposedly ancient writings and have in them occasion to deceive the guileless.” 2
The Reliability of the Bible: Count on it as God’s Word
Yes, indeed, the Bible is reliable and trustworthy – more than any other book in all of history! It is literally God’s “love letter” to His people, kept intact and maintained carefully through His providence over thousands of years of human history.
Although many have tried to contaminate it, corrupt it, and otherwise do away with it, it has remained - intact, unscathed, and unrivaled. It IS truly God’s Word, unique among all the so-called scriptures of the ages.
So back to our initial point – if the Bible truly IS the written word of God – and these other books are just that – other books – then listen to what the Lord is telling you in His love letter! Pick up a copy of the Bible, and start with the book of John. Read about how God “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever would believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
Though the world would have you believe that there are many books, and many ways to God, Jesus Christ made claims – and performed acts – that no other “holy man” of history can come close to matching. He said “I am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE.” If this Bible is what it claims to be – a testimony to God’s plan of salvation for human kind, and Jesus is that “Word made flesh” (as John 1 describes), then don’t delay – give Jesus a chance in your life!
Don’t put it off. Allow Jesus to come into your life and make you “a new creation”! You have nothing to loose everything to gain. Here is a link to Billy Graham’s web site that can show you how you can invite Jesus into your life and be the person He has always intended you to be. You won’t regret it – you’ll have abundant life in this world, and an eternity of joy in the hereafter!
Take Me to Steps to Peace With God ==> http://www.billygraham.org/SH_StepsToPeace.asp
Links to Source Material
Blue Letter Bible – New King James Version:http://www.blueletterbible.org/
1. “Why the Bible is the Word of God”, by Rabbi Glen Harris. http://www.gospeloutreach.net/bible.html
2. Origin of the New Testament Canon:http://www.ntcanon.org/Athanasius.shtml
3. “Early Christian Writings” – The Muratorian Canon -http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian.html
4. “New Evidence That Demands a Verdict”, Josh Mcdowell.
5. “Why I Am a Christian”, edited by Norman L/ Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman. Baker Books, 2001.
6. “History of Christianity”, J.W. Montgomery. P 34-35.
Council of Nicea: