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The Christian Bible is a collection of 66 books, with more than 66 authors chronicling their experiences of God as revealed to them. Those historical encounters accurately represent their understanding of God – in that sense, the Bible is a precise and robust representation of those who wrote it.

Perhaps what we mean to ask more specifically is:

Is The Bible Reliable?

We can be confident in the reliability of the biblical manuscripts being accurately preserved. A standard assurance amongst scholars is the volume of surviving copies surpasses other historical recordings of a similar age. However, the greater confidence of reliability is in understanding how ancient Oral Transmission preserves the biblical manuscripts.
A frequent criticism is that the Bible is an ancient book, and so there are bound to be some errors – therefore, we must take it all with a pinch of salt. That is to say, the words contained within the good book should be considered ‘flexible’ in interpretation.

And in truth, it is a very old book. The collection of books that compose the Bible covers a vast number of years. For example, the oldest part of the Bible (the book of Job) dates back as far as 7000 BCE, and the youngest book (Revelation) dates back to 95AD. So, it is more of a collection of many ancient texts.

Surely, some things must have been lost over time, misinterpreted or skewed to mean something else. Some may even assume parts are factually incorrect and could not have been preserved over 9,000 years. These are legitimate concerns, and the answers determine your view of the credibility of this ancient book. If the words in the Bible do not accurately represent what each author intended for us to read, then the foundation of our values built around a belief in those words is eroded.


Methods of Criticism

Various academic criticism models have been used in recent times to try to understand where the weak points in preserving the Bible might be. The methods most commonly used are Redaction, Textual, Literary, Source and Form criticism. Primarily concerned with the arrangement of the words written down, these five methods of criticism help us understand the textual structure, that is, how the words are translated, transcribed and presented to us in their modern form. However, they fail to appreciate the most ancient method of ensuring an accurate representation of words passed from generation to generation – Oral Tradition.
Redaction and source criticism do try to consider the earliest methods of creating Bible manuscripts, but they primarily focus on the manuscripts themselves. This is chiefly because we can’t efficiently study what might have been said; we can only observe what has been written down.


How did the Bible Get Put Together?

Let me give you a whistle-stop tour of how the Bible came together.
It wasn’t until around 90 AD that the Old Testament as we know it, or more respectfully known as the Hebrew Scriptures as the Jews know it, came to be closed, sealed and affirmed as it is today. Before this time, there was no Bible but a variety of ancient books, some of which were considered more authoritative than others.
History and preservation were seen as very different concerns in the ancient world. The authority of ancient texts was sorted through a socially perceived hierarchy of communal importance that is so far removed from our understanding of historical reliability that we must abandon our modern assumptions about history to understand how the Bible came to be.
It wasn’t until the third century that the Bible was finally organised into its present form. We call this organisation of the Bible’ canon’, which means ‘measure’ or ‘rule’. The Bible, now canonical, is considered the most revered and assured version of ancient texts concerning humanity’s understanding of God.
Over a few hundred years, several ancient councils led to the agreement (over time) of the Bible as being collectively considered authoritative and inspired. This is not to say that the books in the Bible were only given such prestige and reverence because the ancient council decided to preserve them. However, they all held authority as individual books at the respective time of writing; the councils that deliberated on the Bible’s final form were sifting out those books that did not hold the same weight of perceived authority.
The books of the Bible were passed on initially through Oral Tradition and, after many centuries, compiled into written scrolls and manuscripts. In other words, they were passed on through verbal recitation within communities.
Surely, that means the Bible is fallible. It must be inaccurate. Right?
How can it span thousands of years, be recited, be translated and still come out of the other end intact?


Oral Tradition

Have you ever played the telephone game? You form a line of several people, and the first person whispers a phrase into the ear of the person next to them. After all the people have passed on the message, you ask the last person to say aloud what they think the original message was. Invariably the message ends up being different from the original message.
When we hear the Bible has been passed down the generations through recitation rather than writing, we tend to imagine something like the telephone game. We think like that because we can’t imagine what it’s like to exist without literacy. Almost everybody you know will most likely have some basic understanding of reading and writing. We rely almost entirely upon the written word because of the digital and print revolutions we benefit from.
We live in a literary culture, which is a relatively new concept in the grand scheme of history. For centuries, the majority of the world could not read or write.
The ancient Jewish culture was no exception and was one of the oral traditions, a tradition so accurate that it has been argued that it is more reliable than our present-day literary tradition.
Kenneth E. Bailey, a scholar in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, spent some time with a tribe in the Middle East that was largely removed from mainstream literary societies and still operates as an Oral Culture. He found a highly functional method of preserving history and story, giving fresh insight into ancient Oral Cultures. However, there were strict rules about how the transmission of information would be preserved.
In some sense, you already know this to be true because you were taught something about the oral tradition as a child.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a…?
Little Miss Muffet sat on her…?
Hickory dickory dock, the… ran up the…?
If you successfully filled in the blanks above, you did so because of Oral Tradition.
Imagine if you said Humpty Dumpty sat on the fence instead of a wall. If you were to misquote any of these rhymes, everyone within earshot would hear the error and tell you how wrong you were to misquote them. If it were something important, like a historical retelling of your community’s experience of God and how He revealed Himself to the community, we would all be so annoyed that if you tried to tell the story again incorrectly, you would be harshly criticised. You would no longer be allowed to recite the important stories of our people publically, and somebody who could do it accurately would be given the responsibility of retelling the Oral Tradition.
This is how it worked in ancient times. You would recite the story, history, song, saying or the like, and everyone in the community would have memorised it. There was no TV, iPad or other mindless distraction, so oral reciting was what everyone did in the evenings. If it were incorrect, a community elder would stop you from speaking, and you would no longer be allowed to tell the story.
In this way, history was preserved. It is so effective that you are more likely to copy and paste text incorrectly before you could get something of the Oral Tradition incorrect.
We live in an age where we rarely rely on memory. Instead, we rely on technology and writing. Once we put information on paper, email or blog, we let ourselves forget it. You don’t have a bad memory; you have an untrained one. Except for those with a degenerative illness, you can likely memorise many things, including scriptures, with striking accuracy. But we don’t engage in memory and Oral Tradition because we prefer more conventional methods such as writing and videoing.
Do you ever hear of Jesus opening up a teaching journal when He preached? No, because he mainly operated in an oral tradition culture.
Luke 4:17 ‘and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:’
Jesus didn’t have the pointing system to help him find chapters and verses in the Hebrew scrolls. Instead, he had to roll through a scroll and find where it was written. You can only find something like that if you know where to look. In other words, he had memorised the scroll.

Is The Bible Reliable?

Because of Oral Tradition, we can approach the Bible with high confidence that the original intended meaning has been preserved across the ages. Before the biblical manuscripts were transcribed, most scholars agree that ancient oral communication protected the texts through a controlled corrective recitation process.

However, that still leaves us trying to understand the Bible’s original intended meaning. In addition, we must grapple with the issue of translation, cultural awareness of the ancient world, and how the ancient writings are best understood today by believers.

What Language Was The Bible Written In?

After being reliably preserved primarily through Oral Tradition, the Bible was transcribed into written manuscripts. The Hebrew Testament was written in Biblical Hebrew, except for the book of Daniel, which was recorded in Biblical Aramaic. The New Testament was recorded in classical Greek – also known as Koine Greek.

From then on, we see the Bible translated into several developing and modern languages over the ages. First, for a significant period, the Bible was translated into Latin, later into English, and now exists in almost every language.

The journey of translation is worth considering when trying to understand the reliability of the Bible in its current form. 

Is Anything Lost In Translating The Bible?

The Bible’s reliability has been assured in terms of the original languages. Still, there is a complication in losing some cultural subtleties when translating the Bible into English. Our English translations should be accepted and trusted, but we must recognise that some meanings may need to be recovered in language.
On the most simplistic level, the English translation that is most understandable is a great place to begin and can be trusted. However, all English (and any other modern language) translations will fall short of capturing the cultural subtleties that best enrich the Bible’s original intended meaning.
We also need to factor in cultural context and bridge the gap of understanding what the Bible text meant for the people alive during its writing and what the meaning might be for us in our day and age.
The words we hold should be carefully read, considered, reflected on, and, if possible, committed to memory. They will enrich your life, bring you close to the divine and enable you to understand the God of the Bible as revealed to each of our ancient writers within the Bible.
As it is written:
Psalm 1:1-3
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.
KEY VERSES: Luke 4:17, Psalm 1:1-3
Bible references are taken from the NIV
Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash.

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