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Is the Bible reliable?

December 2015 | by Peter J. Williams

Relief showing SennacheribThere’s a very simple experiment that anyone in the Western world can perform. It starts by getting hold of a Bible printed before 1798.

This is not hard. Some families have old Bibles. They can often be found in old churches, libraries, and second-hand book shops. You can also buy them on the internet. There are literally thousands of Bibles from before 1798 which can be inspected personally by anyone in the West.

Archaeology

But why 1798? That is the year when Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) conquered Egypt. Napoleon’s campaign was unlike previous military campaigns, because, along with his vast army, he brought teams of scholars to record what they found in Egypt. It is therefore generally said that the academic discipline of archaeology began with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.

That means that any printed Bible from before 1798 was produced before archaeology or the systematic digging up and investigation of old things began. No one printing any of those Bibles could have adapted their Bible to fit with archaeological discoveries, because these had not yet been made.

Equally clearly, we can see that a printed Bible from before 1798 differs little from any modern Bible. To be sure, some modern Bibles are more paraphrastic and the text differs in a relatively small number of places in the New Testament. However, if I pick any printed Bible before 1798 and put it alongside my least favourite modern translation, I will still find the same basic stories and historical claims.

This experiment allows us to ask questions, such as, ‘How many of the statements which were in printed Bibles before 1798 have been shown to be valid?’ Or, ‘To what extent have the narratives in those printed Bibles been confirmed by archaeology?’

Rosetta Stone

Of course, 1798 was only the beginning. Not everything was discovered at once. In 1799 Napoleon’s team discovered the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, but it was not until 1822 that Champoleon was able to use that text to decipher ancient Egyptian.

So no printer of any Bible from before 1822 can have been influenced by knowledge of Egyptian. It was not until the 1840s that Assyrian and Babylonian (two forms of Akkadian) were deciphered. As a consequence no printed Bible from before then can have been adjusted to fit the knowledge we now have from ancient Akkadian documents.

Now that we have established that our old printed Bibles are uninfluenced by archaeological discoveries, we need to ask what information they contain which has been confirmed by subsequent archaeological discovery.

The answer is that over 200 years of archaeology have provided external confirmation of a wealth of historical information in the Bible. The Old Testament mentions five Assyrian kings: Tiglath-Pileser, Shalmaneser, Sargon, Sennacherib and Esarhaddon. The decipherment of Assyrian reveals each one of these to be a real person, correctly historically placed, and we now even have records from these kings.

Specific text        

But we can get more precise and consider a specific text. Pictured here is the first edition of the King James Version (1611) for 2 Kings 18:13-14. Anyone with internet access can see any page of this edition.

The text reads: ‘Now in the fourteenth yeere of king Hezekiah, did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and tooke them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, I have offended, returne from me: that which thou puttest on me, wil I beare. And the king of Assyria appointed unto Hezekiah king of Judah, three hundred talents of silver, and thirtie talents of gold’.

The script, spelling, and language require some mental adjustment, but from these verses and their surrounding context we have at least seven historical claims:

There was a king of Judah named Hezekiah;

There was a king of Assyria named Sennacherib;

That Sennacherib took all the ‘fenced’ [i.e. walled] cities of Judah;

That Sennacherib spent time at Lachish;

That Sennacherib did not conquer Jerusalem;

That Sennacherib fined Hezekiah 300 talents of silver;

That Sennacherib fined Hezekiah 30 talents of gold.

How many of these claims are confirmed by subsequent discovery? To answer this, we need only to read Sennacherib’s own account of events, which exists in several copies, one of which is in the British Museum:

‘As for Hezekiah, the Judaean, I besieged 46 of his fortified walled cities … I conquered them and took out 200,150 people … He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage … Hezekiah was overwhelmed by the splendour of my lordliness and he sent me … 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver…’ (translation by Mordechai Cogan, The raging torrent, pp. 114-15).

The account obviously confirms the first three claims above. The fourth claim is confirmed by the British Museum’s graphic stone reliefs depicting Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish.

The fifth claim, that Sennacherib didn’t conquer Jerusalem, is conceded by Sennacherib, who tries to put a positive spin on it. He speaks of shutting Hezekiah up like a bird in a cage, which is as much as to admit that Sennacherib didn’t manage to get the bird out of the cage.

Astounding agreements

The sixth and seventh claims present us with one of the most astounding agreements as well as a seeming disagreement. The Bible and Sennacherib’s account agree that Hezekiah paid Sennacherib precisely 30 talents of gold. They disagree about the amount of silver, which I find far less surprising than their agreement about the gold, and that both accounts indicate that the tribute was paid in two metals.

Of course, there are ways of fitting the texts together without appealing to a copyist’s or authorial error in either text, such as a fine paid in two instalments, of which the Bible only records one, or by observing that the Bible is speaking about the fine that Sennacherib appointed to Hezekiah, and Sennacherib’s account is recording what he eventually received.

However, it is worth reflecting on just how striking all the agreements are. The King James Version was produced well before archaeology began. For the Old Testament Hebrew text the translators used the 1525 Second Rabbinic Bible.

We do not know precisely which Hebrew manuscripts lay behind that edition, but they were certainly medieval and probably from no earlier than the eleventh century AD. Yet the events recorded in the Bible are from around 701 BC.

Therefore the gap between the earliest manuscripts theoretically available to the King James Version translators and the events they recorded was at least 1700 years.

The only way an early printed English Bible could have correct historical information from over 1700 years before their earliest source is if authors had correctly recorded in the first place and many, many generations of copyists had correctly handed down the right words in the manuscripts across vast stretches of time.

Trust

Let us be clear, this passage is not an isolated example in the Bible. Examples could be multiplied at great length of statements in printed Bibles from before archaeology, which archaeology has subsequently confirmed. If the Bible were merely an attempt to write history hundreds of years after the event, it would not be the way it is.

But there is one more thing worth note. Christians for the many centuries before archaeology trusted the Bibles they had. Whether it was a medieval monk copying a Latin Bible in his cell, or a Reformer like William Tyndale who was martyred for translating the Bible into English: these people read about Sennacherib capturing the cities of Judah and imposing a fine on Hezekiah, and they believed what they read.

They could not possibly have imagined that, centuries later, people would discover and then decipher Sennacherib’s own account, confirming the details of the Bible.

What this shows to us is that the people who trusted the Bible before archaeology started had a trust which has been vindicated. Their trust has been shown to be rational. This shows that it is also rational to trust the Bible in areas where archaeology has not yet confirmed its truth.

If we say that we only trust someone when we have their word confirmed by something else, we’re really saying that we do not trust them at all. If we say that we will only trust the Bible when it is confirmed by some other sources, we’re saying that we do not trust the Bible.

Peter J. Williams MA, MPhil, PhD is warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge, and an affiliated lecturer at the University of CambridgeBut if we do not trust the Bible, we’re choosing to distrust a source which has already been vindicated in incredible ways. More than that, this specially vindicated book claims to be God’s Word and demands a response of trust from us. To refuse to trust it would not merely be a sin against our rationality, it would be a sin against God.