Wheatley: Reliability of the Bible
Fr. Paul Wheatley (email)
Yesterday in my sermon on the reliability of Scripture, I showed a few slides that I had reproduced from some materials Dr. Daniel B. Wallace — director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary — had included in an interview with Justin Taylor. If you want to dig deeper into that data, I suggest you take a look at that blog post, and the slides I’ve included below.
As I mentioned in my sermon, the text of the New Testament is very well-attested by a large number of manuscripts, many of which are very early. This gives NT scholars lots of data to work with when reconstructing the text of the originals, and making decisions between manuscript variations. We can have a lot of confidence that the New Testament we base much of our faith upon is reliable.
However, during my sermon, I didn’t have much time to go over the Old Testament books and their reliability. While my seminary training and personal experience is much more heavily-weighted toward New Testament studies, over the last century the studies around the text of the Old Testament have developed considerably as well. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves at Qumran in 1947–1956, the world became aware of the treasure-trove of ancient manuscripts students of the Judaism from around Jesus’ time (as well as textual scholars of the Old Testament) could now access.
Specifically for Hebrew manuscript evidence of the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls were a huge discovery. These manuscripts come from between 250 BC–70 AD, which makes them the earliest manuscripts of the Old Testament scholars know of to date. These manuscripts contain entire books of the Old Testament, which made them an especially significant find, since prior to that the earliest manuscripts of any complete book of the Old Testament dated from the 10th Century AD!
By comparing the Dead Sea Scrolls to the other known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, scholars found that the later manuscripts of the Old Testament from the 10th Century AD and beyond were very similar to the Qumran manuscripts. In other words, even the late Hebrew OT manuscripts were very well-copied, and there were not many differences between the texts.
Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament scholars had to compare these relatively late manuscripts to earlier known manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament translated into Greek, also known as the Septuagint. With the discovery of the Qumran scrolls, scholars could see that the Old Testament was transmitted through the manuscripts with significant fidelity throughout the centuries, and the confidence with which we can know the reliability of the Old Testament grew considerably.
So, take heart! We can have great confidence in the reliability of our Bible — Old and New Testaments.
If you would like to do further reading about this, I would recommend you take a look at some of these books:
Understanding Scripture, An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning, edited by Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, and Thomas R. Schriener.
-This is a good entry-level look at how we got our Bible, and the reliability of the Scriptures.
Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament, by Daniel B. Wallace, PhD.
-This book goes a little deeper into these topics, but it should still be approachable to someone without any seminary or biblical studies education.