The Question of “Reliability”

Are the biblical texts reliable and how do we know?

In dealing with the question of “reliability” when it comes to the analysis of historical documents, there are a number of questions that need to be answered. Namely, what does “reliability” mean in a particular context, especially when it comes to matters regarding the biblical material. 

Atheists have made much hay over the fact that the biblical documents have—and I use this word carefully—inconsistencies in the texts. Often these are played as contradictions, namely because they treat the Bible as a singular work rather than what it actually is: a collection of venerated works from a number of authors spread across—depending on how one dates the texts—600 to 1500 years. What that means is that “reliability” has to mean different things in different situations, so the term must apply to two different, yet related concepts: manuscript reliability and historical reliability. 

Manuscript reliability is a question of transmission. What does a particular text look like through time. As moderns, we take the existence of devices like document scanners and photocopiers for granted. However, the photocopier has been around for less than 100 years, and the document scanner for less than 30. Even the printing press has only been in existence for about 500 years. So the question is, how were documents reproduced for distribution prior to the printing press?

Dr. James White on New Testament Reliability

Well, they were hand copied. Hundreds, if not thousands of man hours in less than ideal situations went into the copying of texts and…well…because of that, there are no exact copies of any document from the ancient world. This would seem to be a mark against any claims of “reliability” from a textual standpoint, but that would be an example of fallacious reasoning simply as an example of double standards, even from the standard of having an “exact” copy because we could find a discrepancy even between the copy and the original if one examines it close enough. Rather, the fact is that we knowingly realize and normally accept subtle variation when it comes to duplication of items. That means that even if the copies aren’t exact, they can be reliable as much as their content reflects one another. This then brings us to the question of historical reliability, which deals with what we know about the past. 

Dr. Michael Kruger speaking on the canon of Scripture

Our knowledge about the past is somewhat…well…limited. We only know about the past by interaction with ancient texts and various artifacts. History is something that we view through a veil of assumptions, rather than certainty the farther back in time that we go. We become dependent upon the sources that we consider to be authoritative and when we find something that runs up against what we want to be true, that which doesn’t affirm what we believe, or confirm our assumptions, then we may spin off into cognitive dissonance. 

Often what we think that we know about history has been filtered to us, not through original sources, but through history books that are weaving a narrative. Narrative might be a good vehicle for conveying general information but—and we need to recognize this— a narrative can sacrifice certain facts for the benefit of telling a compelling story. That doesn’t mean that a particular retelling of events doesn’t mean that those events didn’t occur, rather it means that those events are being portrayed in a particular light. And we normally recognize these facts, and extrapolate out from them what is necessary to establish the facts. Skeptics seem to forget this though. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg tackles the problem of narrative history in this essay, writing,

What narrative history gets wrong are its explanations of what happened. And the same goes for biography—the history of one person over a lifetime. Biographers can get all the facts from birth to death right. What they inevitably get wrong is why their subjects did what they accurately report them as having done.

The question is, how does one determine what is “wrong” in such a situation? Well, what Rosenberg claims is the biographer gets the motivation “wrong”. So, it’s not the facts of the matter that narrative history “gets wrong” it’s the rationale. He defends this by arguing that narrative history has caused more harm than good, that people have manipulated historical narratives to achieve evil ends. Never mind the fact that he is so unreflective as to realize that he is doing the exact same thing that he is accusing others of doing, only using his own narrative of history to undermine narrative history. But, then again, he did write the nonsensical Atheist’s Guide to Reality. (For a review of Rosenberg’s book from a philosopher, see here.) Rosenberg’s ultimate argument is that we can’t access motivation scientifically, so we should only care about simple facts into the material questions of what, where, how, and when. The only problem is that the question of why is immediately necessary to understand, that is contextualize, the other answers. For example, we cannot understand the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, without having at least some understanding the Japanese motivation for the attack, which were multifaceted. 

Rosenberg’s argumentation against the reliability of narrative in regard to history is also undermined by the fact that he mentions that historians use, “…records, letters, diaries, chronicles that people write down…,” to give us insight into the rationale behind certain actions. Rosenberg’s argumentation is that reflecting on that history, the history revealed through narrative, and trying to understand the past, “…confers real understanding that can shape or otherwise help us cope with the future.“ Never-mind the fact that Rosenberg is reflecting upon what historical research has revealed in an attempt to shape the future understanding of history. 

By simply recognizing the fact that historical narrative has some subjective reflection on events, and that may color the reporting of events doesn’t necessarily undermine the validity of those events, because all reporting inherently involves agency in its conveyance. And so that means that the average historical account, especially from the ancient world, is a personal effort, and the writer is often reporting what is important or relevant to them. 

As moderns, we take for granted the availability and ample supply of paper, not to mention the fact that we have the internet and digital means for recording and transferring information. People in the past often did not* have the ability to record information even in written form, nor did they often think that it was necessary, which is why so much of the past is lost to us. That means that we can assume that there has been time between a person’s experience of an event and the time at which that experience gets recorded. If this is the case that means that the writer has had time to reflect on the event, perhaps even having discussed it with others, gleaning from them insights and perspectives that have influenced the reflective view of the experience. That means such a recording would be just as much  interpretive as much as it is informative. Indeed, as one interacts with ancient materials, such as the found in the Bible, one cannot help but see this as evident.

Indeed, it is the inherent presuppositions brought, both of the one writing history and the one reading history, that often cause much of the problem. An affirmed naturalistic materialist reading the biblical texts comes with presuppositions that are foreign to the writers of the text who are avowed supernaturalists in their worldview. This means that the materialist is philosophically handicapped by his presuppositions in being able to interact with what are given as historic claims. 

For example, when we come to passages such as found in 2 Samuel 5, where David is directed by the LORD in a particular plan of battle, we are blocked from accessing this as a matter of history, so we are left to ask certain questions, like,

  • Is there such a valley as described?
  • Is there evidence of a battle?
  • Are there cultural features that fit into the description?
  • etc

The skeptic, seems to forget how to ask these kinds of questions, or they just make certain assumptions about the text that forces them to conclude that it simply cannot be historical. Scholar and noted skeptic Bart Ehrman takes such to task in his book, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, where he writes,

[The books of the Bible] are … books. That is, they were written by people in historical circumstances and contexts and precisely in light of those circumstances and contexts. There is no God-given way of interpreting God-given literature, even if such literature exists. It is still literature. And it has to be interpreted as literature is interpreted. There is no special hermeneutic handed down from above to direct the reading of these books as opposed to all others. (emphasis original) (p. 82)

In that, Ehrman paints himself at one end of a spectrum, at the other he places, 

…certain agnostics and atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information.

He makes an interesting comparison, noting,

[The] nonbelievers who argue this are making common cause with the fundamentalists who also argue it. Both groups treat the Gospels as nonhistorical…(p. 84)

He goes on to write,

These authors had nothing to do with later developments, such as that their books were considered inspired and were placed in a canon and called the New Testament.

That’s the fundamental issue ultimately: the writers of the biblical bools weren’t writing books that would be eventually gathered up and considered to be “holy”, they were just writing because they felt that these things needed to be recorded. The truth is, this side of eternity, we won’t know.

For more reading:

A paper by E. Earle Ellis on reading the gospels as history

My review of Bart Ehrman’s defense of a historical Jesus

On dating the Gospels

A biblical view of inspiration

Update note:

*In originally writing this post a key word was left out of the argument, that a casual reading would have made seem contradictory, but close reading would have naturally corrected. I have inserted the word to make it more clear.

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