13th July 2014
Are the New Testament documents reliable?
This question has a number of angles, so let us look at them in turn.
1) Are the versions we have reliable translations of what the original authors wrote so long ago?
This is quite a technical question. The documents were originally hand-written in Greek, and copied by hand. Mistakes were inevitable and got passed on to the next copies. We don’t have the original manuscripts; but we do have lots of very early copies, more than any other ancient document. What is remarkable is how few variations there are – they obviously were copied very carefully. Later on copies had to be translated – and what Greek may use many words for something that another language may only have one word for, or there may be an expression in Greek that another language cannot translate exactly. So even English translations vary: some try to be almost word-for-word (which ends up as rather odd English), while others concentrate on getting the sense across. Yet all can be said to be reliable in their different ways.
2) The original authors wrote their documents some time after the events they describe. Did they make it up?
The four gospels and Acts are records of events and teaching. The letters that follow were of course written down and widely copied and circulated, and most are thought to be accurate copies of what was first written. (Some people think the second letter to the Corinthians was put together from several letters, and others dispute the authorship of some letters.)
Some of the documents have historical references – especially Luke – and historians in the last century questioned whether they were accurate. But archaeological discoveries have often proved them right. (Some questions still remain.)
3) But are the documents we have reliable records of what Jesus and the apostles taught?
The Gospels and Acts were records of stories and memories circulating around – no-one was taking notes at the time. In those days history and teaching was passed on by word of mouth more than by writing, and the teaching was often designed to be memorable – poetry and stories were important. Of course, the writers often summarised sermons and teaching, and could only write down some of what was remembered. Our problem today is that people don’t believe miracles happen – so they dismiss the stories of miracles out of hand. But Paul, talking about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, reminded his readers that there were around 500 witnesses still alive. Truth is often stranger than fiction.
4) Are these documents really ‘Scripture’ – does God speak to us through them today?
What was true yesterday is likely to be true today, unless it was for those specific circumstances. And many say that God does speak to them through the Bible today, in their own situations.
1) In what ways is the Bible true?
2) How do we hear what God says?