We all know that people use Google to answer all kinds of questions. But did you know that according to a study done by Theolocast, the second most Googled theological question in 2019 was, “what is the Bible?” That question was typed into the search bar a staggering 1.8 million times per month last year. That type of data gives us a picture into the types of ultimate questions people are searching for. What kind of answers to that particular question did those people find I wonder? Were they able to discover credible and educated explanations or was the search lost in the internet quagmire of misinformation and missing contexts?
How does the Christian who professes Christ as Lord and Saviour come to an answer to that very question? If asked, how could we then point to a concise, clear, and honest response, resource, or reference to help others seeking to understand what the Bible is?
What is the Bible?
The Bible has been the world’s number one best-seller consistently since records started being kept shortly after the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. Only a select few books have tiptoed to attempting to challenge the Bible’s supremacy as the most popular book. Among the list of contenders are Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But none of them have truly come close in the scope and proportion that the Bible has been printed, spread, and sold globally year in and year out. Approximately six billion Bibles have been printed and sold to date. Granted, the Bible did have a head start, it was the first item to be printed in its entirety off of the modern printing press. Yet there remains something about the Bible that has made it the world’s most popular book time and time again.
There are, however, countries on the map today where the Bible is not permitted. Bringing a Bible into Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Libya, or parts of China, for example, can result in arrest, deportation, and even torture or death if you are a native of that particular country. So what makes the Bible so special? Why has it over the millennia inspired such emotion, art, philosophy, music, and subsequent literature?
A part of the answer to that question is the fact that the Bible is not simply one book as much as it is a collection of books. A collection of sixty-six books, encompassing multiple genres, written over a period of about 1600 years, on three different continents, by approximately forty different authors, in three different languages (Greek, Hebrew, and to a lesser degree, Aramaic). The Bible includes wisdom proverbs, poetry, parables, apocalyptic literature, biographies, and history. It is the last two categories on that list that contribute a significant reason why the Bible is taken so seriously.
The Trustworthiness of the Text of the Bible
When I was doing my undergraduate work at York University in Toronto, I would encounter all sorts of perspectives regarding what I believed as a Christian. The majority of these interactions were entirely amicable, however, there was a pattern that I noticed. It didn’t seem to matter who I talked to —whether they were liberal Christians, skeptics, atheists, Muslims, Mormons, etc. — they would often come back with a similar retort, something to the effect of:
“That sounds great Wes, but you’re basing all of that on the Bible and you cannot trust the Bible. All you have is a translation of a translation of a translation. Error ridden copies that stretch back into history and you can’t even be sure that what you have now is what the original authors wrote back then!”
That was a statement that I took seriously. At face value, if that is indeed the lot of the Christian Scriptures then I, as a modern Christian, do indeed have a problem. However, upon diving into that question further I found the complete opposite to be the case.
As I explored the topic of the trustworthiness of the text of the Bible I found that the physical evidence concerning the “what,” “where,” and “when,” of the text was certainly not struggling for evidence in its favour. In fact, the hand-written copies, what are referred to as manuscripts, of the New Testament alone dwarfed any other written document from antiquity. This also includes dozens of ancient translations of the Bible that allow us to see how the text was being rendered in other languages very early on. Original Greek copies were complimented by Old Latin, Coptic, Old Church Slavonic, and Syriac. We also have extremely early fragments of the Biblical text that give us a key indication of what the wording of the books in the New Testament looked like within an incredibly early stage after the original books were written.
In fact, the latest text in the New Testament is still earlier than the best text we have for historical figures like Emperor Tiberius, Muhammad, or Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha). The early Christians were prolific in their copying and spreading of their Scripture. This desire to get the Word of God into the hands of as many people as widely as possible was a key factor in the spreading of Christianity throughout the ancient world.
Now earlier does not always mean better and more copies doesn’t necessarily equate to more reliable, but what we see with the text of the Bible are multiple traditions of copying by Christians across wide geographical areas throughout the decades, centuries, and millennia. All of this provides us with an incredibly rich and full-formed textual history. A history that allows us to see what the Bible has looked like in every period of its transmission. It also had the side effect of not allowing any one single person or group to have total control over what the books of the Bible said at any one point in time. A fact that renders any Da Vinci Code-esque argument of inserting and or removing doctrines or books of the Bible null and void.
The downside, however, of having so many copies is that these manuscripts tend to have mistakes. No two ancient copies of the Bible read identical to one another. While skeptics may make much of this fact when one truly dives into the significance of the differences it is easily discovered that the overwhelming majority of those differences are good faith errors. The side effect of having hand written copies of any work is that mistakes tend to happen, and the more copies you have the greater the number of these differences tends to be. For a collection like that of the Bible our copies number in the tens of thousands.
Far from a negative, it is the fact that we have so many copies that allows us to compare and contrast. To see where things differ, are added, or taken away, whether intentionally or unintentionally and then to render the text as it would have been originally written. The early church’s zeal to spread the gospel message not only carried the good news of Jesus far and wide but it left us with the most widely attested collection of documents in all of antiquity and an incredible ability to sift through the data and trace the original wording of these books back in a way unparalleled with any other work from the ancient world.
What this allows the modern reader of the Bible to have is an incredible confidence that what they read in a modern translation of the Bible is what the original authors wrote thousands of years ago.
To be continued…