The Dead Sea Scrolls represented one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history, and they authenticated the reliability of our contemporary Old Testament texts. Among the many discoveries was a complete scroll of the entire book of Isaiah. Although our oldest copy of Isaiah at that time was from the 1000s A.D., the Dead Sea scroll written 1,000 years earlier was a near exact match! For example, in comparing the texts, of the 166 words in the book of Isaiah chapter 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of the letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the meaning at all. Four more letters are minor style changes, such as an added “and.” The remaining three letters spell the word "light," which is added in verse 11 and does not affect the meaning. In short, what the Dead Sea scrolls demonstrate is highly careful and exact transmission of Biblical texts down through the ages!
For the New Testament, our confidence in its reliability is even greater. True, we do not, for instance, possess the parchment on which Mark wrote his Gospel. However, this should not be surprising because we essentially have NO originals for any of the writings from the Ancient World. Still, is it reasonable to believe that we possess what the authors originally wrote? Or, has the text passed through too many hands over too much time to be trusted?
The New Testament remains the best preserved ancient text in history with 27,000 complete books or sections of the text in our possession. The oldest section dates from mere decades from the original, and the oldest complete New Testament dates to a little more than 200 years after the original. Compared to Homer’s The Iliad, the second best preserved ancient work, which is routinely taught in schools, there remain just 643 complete works or fragments of the text, but the oldest copy dates to 500 years from the time of the original.
Critics claim that the New Testament includes 400,000 variations among the many copies of the ancient texts, which sounds like a lot. However, of those variations, the vast majority are due to simple (easily identifiable) scribal errors of spelling or grammar. Less than 1% of those variations impact the meaning of the text, and while most variations have been resolved, NO Christian belief or teaching is impacted by the few variations among the ancient New Testament texts.
Along with preservation of the New Testament text, its internal evidence demonstrates its truth. First, no credible scholar disputes that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the early first century A.D in southern Israel. Historical sources outside of the New Testament mention him, albeit briefly because at the time they could not have imagined his impact. In the first century, women were not eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. They were considered too emotional and unreliable. Yet…in the Gospels, women are the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus Christ! Jesus calls Peter, “Satan,” and the disciples are all cowering in fear following Jesus’ crucifixion thinking they will be arrested and killed next. Just a few days later they charge into the street to proclaim his resurrection. Such “embarrassing” details would certainly have been edited out of the story unless it was what actually happened.
In addition, most of the books of the New Testament were written prior to 70 A.D., within roughly 35 years of the crucifixion, by eyewitnesses, personal associates of eyewitnesses, and within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. History also records that most of those who first proclaimed the reality of Christ’s resurrection died excruciating deaths. At any point they could have renounced their faith and lived. They didn’t because they knew the truth.
In the end, it is indeed reasonable to assert that we possess accurate accounts of the events and the teachings of Christianity. According to classical literature scholar, Giorgio Pasquali, “No other Greek text is handed down so richly and credibly as the New Testament.”
Police detectives call it chain of custody: evidence collected at the scene and properly handed from one to another to another all the way to the court room. In recording the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know of John the apostle, an eyewitness. He had three students, Papias, Ignatius, and Polycarp, who wrote to their students what they learned from John. Their student, Irenaeus, wrote to his student Hippolytus. From there to the first council of Nicaea to today, we see that what is proclaimed about Jesus has not changed. God exists (see our previous six essays), and God in Christ preserved his Word for us and to us. As retired homicide detective, Warner Wallace, notes, “The Jesus we know today, God in flesh, born of a virgin, rose from the dead, that Jesus is present at every stage in the chain of custody to today.”
The Bible’s Deuteronomy 31 records God telling Moses to read out loud the law (their Bible) every seven years. Such a tradition preserved the accuracy of the text for generations to come.