Why do we treat the Bible differently than we treat Homer’s writings? They are both old. They are both classics. Why do Christians go one giant step further and say that the Bible is the basis for our beliefs and our lifestyles?
The Bad News About the Bible
Let’s begin with the bad news before we jump into comparisons between the Bible and the Blind Bard. You should know that there are about 300,000 differences in the stacks of manuscripts that inform our modern Bible translations of the New Testament. That means there are more total differences between the copies than there are words in our English translation of the New Testament.
So, in light of such bad news, why in the world do Christians act like the New Testament is trustworthy? Isn’t it clearly corrupted? Why act like it is better literature than the Iliad?
First, the vast majority of the differences, what academics call “textual variants,” are actually insignificant things like spelling and grammar. Keep in mind, throughout the early spread of Christianity the New Testament letters were copied by hand in order to give instruction to the new communities of faith. One well-known expert on the biblical manuscripts (manuscripts just means copies), Daniel Wallace, demonstrates that we really have 98% agreement between the main sources of biblical manuscripts once you remove insigificant issues like differences in spelling and grammar.
Second, we have loads of manuscripts. In fact, the New Testament is in a completely different league in comparison to other historical documents. As I mentioned, the Iliad has more manuscripts than any other ancient work second to the Bible. There are 643 ancient copies of the Iliad. This pales in comparison to the number of early copies we have of the New Testament, which boasts over 5,000 copies. The more copies you have the better. But the more hand made copies you have the more possibility for spelling and grammatical errors (see the first point).
Third, the copies of the New Testament are much closer to the originals than copies of Homer’s Iliad. The earliest copy that exists of Homer’s work is from 500 years after he first wrote it. The earliest widely accepted New Testament fragment we have is from the gospel of John and dates to within fifty years of the original writing.
Fourth, the New Testament was quoted extensively by the early church fathers. So, in addition to the massive stack of early copies of Scripture (the manuscripts), we have enough quotations of the New Testament by these early church leaders to actually reproduce the entire New Testament. In addition to historical support from within the religious community there is impressive evidence from without (see next point).
Fifth, while the New Testament is not merely a history book it does make many historical statements. And it is set in a historical context of place and time. Some skeptics wrongly assume that the New Testament lacks historical support and can be easily disproved. One notable example is the scholar Sir William Ramsey, who was the first to hold the chair of Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art at the University of Oxford. He became a Christian after being convinced of the reliability and truthfulness of the New Testament through his rigorous archeological research in Asia Minor.
Sixth, the main character of the New Testament rose from the dead. Many have found the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection to be compelling. If Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, according to the Scriptures, as of course I believe to be the case, then the New Testament quickly takes a powerful place of authority. The resurrection of Jesus, the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the focal point of the New Testament, is powerful proof for why we should take the Bible seriously.
Seventh, while many greatly appreciate the influential writings of Homer, he is not really known for changing lives. The New Testament should be trusted because it contains the ability to change lives, the gospel that is the power of God to salvation for all who believe. If you’ve experienced this then you know just how powerful of an argument it is. A skeptic might laugh at this point, but if they ever personally experienced the transformation that comes through Jesus then they would agree.
So, take up the New Testament and read. And as you prepare for Christmas, I hope you are encouraged by this reminder of some of the reasons we can trust it more than any other writing of antiquity. More than just a reliable book, it testifies to a baby born in Bethlehem who is the king of the world.