The Bible and the Historical Provenance of Christianity

The Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the caves of Qumran that located on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel.

Many people say they “do not believe” the Bible. But, what does that mean? The Bible is an ancient document that has been around in the same form for centuries. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts verify that and reveal that very little (maybe less than 1%) of the substance of the Bible has changed over the centuries.

Some argue over which writings should be included or not included in the canon which we call the Bible, but no one argues that it does not exist and has existed in virtually the same form for over a couple thousand years.

It is an historical record of people and places. Many of those people and places have been cross referenced by other sources. Archaeological finds have also verified many of the people and places in the Bible. People may argue whether every person and place referenced in the text is actual, accurate and factual, but few people seriously argue that it has no historical value.

It is also a collection of stories, poems, songs and sayings. As literature, it is full of imagery, compelling stories and words of wisdom. It has great literary value. The Bible is a collection of writings covering a span of about 1600 years by various authors focusing on particular people in a particular geographical area of the Middle East.

Some of the writings purport to be relatively contemporaneous accounts, and others seem more like historical accounts. Scribes were trained and devoted their lives to the careful transcription of the text from generation to generation. The writings have been collected and preserved by the people who have been passed them down from generation to generation as sacred text.

What is most likely meant when people say they “do not believe the Bible” is that they do not believe the Bible is the “Word of God”. People do not believe it is divinely inspired. Perhaps, the thing that people stumble over the most is the fact that it purports to be just that: a collection of God’s communications with people in history. When people say the do not believe the Bible, they most likely mean they do not believe the Bible can be taken at face value.

Various people have various theories about the Bible. I have even recently heard people say that the Bible was put together by Roman dictators to “control the people” by giving them something to believe in. Really?! There is no scholarly support for that position by the way, but there are other pet theories.

Most scholars agree that there is some “truth” to the Bible. What I mean by that is that there seems little doubt that the collection of writings have been preserved from antiquity in roughly the same form as they are today, through various translations that are pretty amazingly similar, and that the Bible has some historical value, as any ancient text does.

The evidence suggests that all of the Old Testament writings pre-date the first Century. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which pre-date the First Century, include manuscripts from every book in the Old Testament except for Esther. Among the manuscripts found in the Qumran caves that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a complete scroll of the Book of Isaiah dating to at least 200 BC.

In fact, the Bible is the most well-preserved and well-attested of any ancient text. We have more ancient manuscripts of the Bible, by a huge volume, than any other ancient text. It gets even more compelling with the New Testament.

The great consensus of scholars believe the New Testament writings were all generated by the end of the First Century. For the New Testament, alone, there are over 24,000 partial and complete manuscript copies, 86,000 quotations from these texts in other writings and several thousand “lectionaries” (basically church service books) from throughout the centuries, including some dating to the first and second centuries, that verify and confirm what was written. (Manuscript Evidence of the New Testament)

Though there are many variations in the text from all those many manuscripts, the wealth of manuscripts allows us the ability to determine with a very high degree of confidence what the original text said – to a 99%+ degree of accuracy. “No central tenet of Christianity hangs on any textually uncertain passage….”

Even the skeptic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, concedes that the textual provisions for which we have some doubt of the meaning do not affect any fundamental doctrine of Christianity (that “essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants.” (See p. 252 of Misquoting Jesus, by Bart Ehrman)

The extensive manuscripts we have of the New Testament writings are described as an “embarrassment of riches” that most historians could only dream of for any other ancient work. In fact, even if we didn’t have one manuscript left of the New Testament writings, we could still piece together the entire New Testament from the writings of the early church fathers who quoted them.

All of this is really quite amazing. It is unprecedented in the world of ancient literature.

As a college student first studying world religions and English Literature, I was an unbeliever. Yet, I knew early on in the comparison of the various world religions that the Judeo-Christian scriptures were unlike any other scriptures of any other world religion. Written by about 66 authors over about 1500 years, the Old and New Testaments hold together in mind boggling complexity like the most finely woven of intricate tapestries.

I found it uncanny, even before I believed it.

Jesus in the Gospel accounts quotes extensively from the Old Testament writings and affirms them as scripture – the very “word of God”. (See How Did Jesus View the Old Testament?) Jesus not only affirmed the Old Testament writings, he claimed to be the fulfillment of them.

The claims of and about Jesus are also historical record, including the claim the he rose from the dead. Paul identifies over 500 people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after he was crucified on the cross in his first letter to the Corinthians, most of whom were still alive, he said (1 Cor. 15:6), when he wrote the letter. Scholarly consensus dates that letter in the 50’s AD.

That would be about as long ago as the the events of 9/11 compared to our present time. Think about how that one event is etched into our memories. An encounter with Jesus after he was crucified would have similar impact on those who witnessed it.

The fact that the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus were evidenced and recorded in writing so close to the time of the claimed event carries historical weight. The resurrection claim isn’t legend that developed later, but a factual assertion made nearly contemporaneous with the event of his death.

Take the extraordinary claims away, and focus only on the “minimal facts” that even skeptical and atheist scholars concede, and we can build a credible and compelling case of the resurrection. No other religion is grounded in claims with as much historical provenance as Christianity.

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