Leonard: Is the Bible mythical or historical?
After trying to write this column in about 800 words I decided it was way too hard to do in one installment. So, due to the complexity and importance of this question, I am going to have to do it over the course of two columns. Here we go …
This is a question that comes up pretty frequently and it is a great question. And honestly, it is one of the most important questions to ask, regardless of your beliefs, faith background, and lack of faith background. If parts of it are mythical, how do we determine the parts that are not? If it’s historical (and therefore reliable), how do we know? If it is God’s word, then it has tremendous implications.
I’ve had many people tell me that “The Bible has been translated so many times that we don’t know what the original manuscripts said.” Is that true or is it that the people who say this simply don’t know what they are talking about — or are quoting people who do not know what they are talking about?
A few years ago I heard a talk on the validity and historicity of the Bible by Dr. Voddie Baucham, the dean of theology at African Christian University in Lusaka, Zambia. In the middle of his talk, he mentioned that there have been over 23,000 archaeological digs in the countries where most of the Bible took place (Israel, Turkey, Egypt, etc.) and not one thing has been found that contradicts the Bible. Better yet, there are things recorded in it that, for centuries, had no “proof” until an archaeological dig found something that substantiated the scripture.
For example, less than a year ago, on March 31, 2019, a bulla (seal impression) and a 2,600-year-old stamp bearing Hebrew names were uncovered in the City of David. The stamp and bulla, which are about one centimeter in size, were deciphered by Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Center for the Study of Ancient Jerusalem, who, according to the script, dates them to the middle of the seventh century to the beginning of the sixth century BCE.
The seal impression, dated to the First Temple period, features the words: “(belonging) to Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King.” The name Nathan-Melech appears once in the Bible, in the second book of Kings 23:11, where he is described as an official in the court of King Josiah, who took part in the religious reform that the king was implementing: “And he took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the Lord, by the chamber of Nathan-Melech the officer, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.”
Archaeology very much points to the Bible’s reliability and historicity. And there are more than 23,000 pieces of evidence along these lines. Let that sink in. In sports terms, that would be “23,000 and 0.” A pretty good record.
Some people will say that the Bible has been copied so many times that we don’t know what the original manuscripts said. Kind of like when you were young and played the telephone game with a few friends. You’d get in a big circle and someone would say a long phrase in the person to their left’s ear, then they’d whisper it to the next person, so on and so forth. At the end of the game, the phrase had changed significantly and everyone would laugh. Fortunately for us, that is not how the Bible translations evolved.
Let’s take a look at the New Testament. It was written predominantly in Koine Greek. Also known as Alexandrian dialect, common Attic, Hellenistic or Biblical Greek, Koine Greek was the common supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written during the Hellenistic period, the Roman Empire, and the early Byzantine Empire, or late antiquity. Just like the English language has changed over the centuries, so did the Greek. For instance, try reading a few pages in the King James Version of the Bible: the “thee’s, setteth, thy, sheweth” can make the passage hard to understand and definitely isn’t very modern. It reminds me of trying to read Shakespeare when I was in 10th grade.
The New American Standard Bible did away with the “Old English” (as did most of the others). As the different translations have come out over time, primarily trying to keep the different versions up to date with modern English, the translators have gone back to the Koine Greek copies of the original manuscripts to update the language into modern English. They do not go back to the most recent translation to make the next translation.
Unfortunately, this is how most people who have not studied this area think it happened. And although we don’t have any of the original manuscripts/ writings of Paul, Matthew, Peter, etc., there are so many copies of the originals that we come up with about a 98% accuracy to knowing what was originally written (because the more copies we have, the easier it is to find what was originally written). Though that leaves 2% to error, nothing in those 2% of variants compromise any single doctrine of the Bible and the vast majority of the variants are simple misspellings.
The quantity and quality of the copies of the original writings are astounding, especially when compared to other writings in antiquity (like Homer’s “Iliad,” Plato’s Tetralogies, or the Annals by Tacitus. For most ancient books there are only a few dozen existing manuscripts, sometimes a few hundred yet virtually no one has called to question the historicity of them. The New Testament has close to 6,000 in Greek and 18,000 in Latin, Armenian, etc.
Well, there’s part one to answering this question. If any of this was confusing please feel free to shoot me an email. Next month I’ll dive into the second part, which revolves around fulfilled prophecy and how that points quite significantly to the reliability of the Bible.
Scott Leonard is the area director for Search Vail Valley. You can reach him at email@example.com