Can we really trust the Bible?
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
The Bible? Pull the other one!
According to recent figures the book market in the UK is worth £3.5 billion a year – that’s a lot of books! The Bible continues to be at the top of the list of all-time best sellers, but what about in Wales today? It looks as if Wales has fallen out of love with this old classic. To some it’s old fashioned, to others it’s irrelevant, and to others it’s unreliable or even dangerous in our enlightened society.
As Christians we believe that the Bible is the word of God and is completely true. But is there any evidence to support this?
Here we talk to Alun Thomas, originally from Holyhead, who has studied in many universities learning about the Bible and its history.
Thank you for talking to us. Could you give us a bit of your background and how your interest started?
I was raised in Holyhead – and that is where the interest started – I remember receiving a Bible from my brother when I was 12. I started to read it and was amazed by the content. Here was a book that was written over hundreds of years, by many different people but it had a clear narrative throughout, and it was so honest about the way people are.
I enjoyed Science and Maths in school and went to Cambridge to study. The first part of my degree was in Natural Sciences, for the second part of my degree I had the opportunity to transfer and study Theology where I focused on Biblical Studies. After completing my degree I went to Jerusalem to learn modern Hebrew. I then went to Durham to study for a master’s degree in Aramaic (one of the oldest languages in the world). I have recently submitted my doctorate to Dublin University looking at some of the oldest Aramaic translations of the Old Testament.
People would be surprised to hear that you combine the factual (the scientific background) with studying the Bible which so many people believe to be a work of fiction. Are you surprised by people’s attitude in Wales towards the Bible?
Yes, it does surprise me to a certain extent. Many people look at the Bible and say that it can’t be true and is made up, but then you have others who believe that the Bible is a book you can do whatever you want with – interpreting from their own viewpoint. We must recognise the we all have preconceptions, and it’s important to try to understand the Bible before we develop our own opinions about it. That’s where real historical evidence, such as, language and analytical skills are so important.
Whatever your attitude, the Bible shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially in Wales. Its effect on our country has been significant - the William Morgan Bible was the book that standardised the Welsh language and we continue to see its influence in many other parts of our life such as on aspect of our laws and even the time of year we enjoy our holidays such as Christmas and Easter. But it’s important to remember that the Bible is not a product of our culture and country. The Bible was written hundreds of years ago in Hebrew, Greek and some parts in Aramaic. I suppose this is where my background is helpful – I want to understand and analyse the Bible in the languages it was originally written.
So, would you say that the Bible is true?
Certainly. Now, there are many ways that we could answer that question. We could, for instance, look at what ways the Bible reflects the historical, social and archaeological background of the near Eastern countries. I’ve collated a list of some books and resources at the end of this article which go into this evidence in more detail. But because my research has been in the language and translation of the Bible, I’ll try to answer your question from that perspective. A question which I have often grappled with in my research is whether the text of the Bible has changed. Is the Bible we have today the same as that which the first followers of Jesus had?
Many people say that the Bible has changed over the years. It’s a fair question and we need to consider if we can trust the Bible that we have today. We do this by taking the manuscripts we have and comparing them to see if there are changes or differences between them. As we compare manuscripts from different eras and different parts of the world we can see if the Bible has changed.
Would you say that the Bible has changed?
Let’s take the New Testament as an example. Compared to other ancient literature (see table on the next page) we have so many manuscripts which we can compare. There are roughly 24,000 altogether – 5,900 in Greek (the original language of the New Testament), 10,000 in Latin and roughly 9,000 in other early translations like Coptic, Ethiopic and Syriac.
It’s interesting because we often find differences, small ones usually (such as spelling) that have happened as people have copied them, this is very understandable over hundreds of years. But we can compare them and see how the changes have occurred – that is why academic work is so important.
Also as a document is translated from one language into another, it’s easy for some things to change, for example the King James translation (1611) sometimes puts ‘Jesus said’ in place of ‘He said’. Languages are different and you have some words in one language that don’t exist in another. As we compare all the early manuscripts and translation, we can locate these changes and ensure that we’re using the original text.
As regards the Old Testament, the oldest complete manuscript is the Codex Leningradensis which dates from roughly 1000 AD. In the mid to late 1940’s some Bedouins in the Judean Desert discovered an amazing batch of manuscripts which date from about two centuries before the time of Jesus until about 70 A.D. Among these manuscripts there was a copy of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Scholars called this copy the ‘Great Isaiah Scroll’ because it was over 24 feet long. The text is very close to the Hebrew versions we see in the Masoretic tradition – sorry, maybe a bit too technical! As we compare all the evidence, we see that the Bible we have today is very dependable.
You’re therefore saying that the Bible hasn’t changed from generation to generation as it’s been passed to us?
That’s correct. The age and sheer volume of Bible manuscripts that we have is incredible. Academics that study other ancient literature are often jealous of all the evidence that we have!
Take Tiberias the Roman Emperor (reigned 14-37 A.D) as an example of a person who lived at the same time as Jesus. Tacticus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio wrote about his life in the first centuries after his life – but these manuscripts date from the ninth century A.D.
But we have copies of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that date from much earlier than that – some as early as the second century A.D.
It sounds as if you take these things seriously.
I think you must take the Bible seriously. It’s such a unique book and it makes such remarkable claims. I’m completely convinced that it’s God’s word and the evidence shows that we can trust it.
Why do you think so many people reject the Bible and what would be your advice to them?
There are many reasons why people reject the Bible. Some reject it because they’ve read it and they don’t like what they read. Some find it difficult to believe. But many people reject it without even reading it. Many just accept what others say without looking at it themselves.
But the Bible is God’s word and it speaks to us in the most amazing way. I experience God speaking to me through it. It’s not always a pleasurable experience – God shows me who I really am, and he warns me, but I also get to know Jesus through the Bible.
My advice would be simple to anybody who hasn’t read it – why not? Just read it; at least you will then be able to consider what it says for yourself.
Books and resources
Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway, 2018) by Peter J. Williams
Why trust the Bible? Answers to 10 tough questions (IVP, 2008) by Amy Orr-Ewing *
'Why trust the Bible?' – online article by Greg Gilbert - https://www.crossway.org/articles/why-trust-the-bible/
First published in Ask Magazine August 2019