Is the Content of the Biblical Manuscripts Reliable? - page 1

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From the Winter 2006 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Is the Content of the Biblical Manuscripts Reliable?

by Amy Orr-Ewing
Training Director, RZIM Zacharias Trust


t may well come as a shock to some that the manuscript tradition of the Old and New Testaments stands up to rigorous scrutiny. There is a widespread belief that much of the Bible was written centuries after the events it records and that it has been changed and tampered with on the whim of different scribes or interested parties. The breadth and age of the existing ancient manuscripts tell a very different story. However, the next question is invariably: “Just because the manuscripts are reliable, that doesn’t make the content of them true.”
  Indeed, it is true that no one argues for the historicity of Homer’s mythology, for example. The manuscripts of his writings may be reasonably intact, but that does not make what he was writing about reliable or accurate historical material. Aren’t the Gospels on the same kind of level—aren’t they just mythological, with true moral value but very little historical reality? Surely accounts involving people walking on water and water turning into wine weren’t meant to be taken as historically true—it’s all mythology, isn’t it? These questions are all very important, and it is true that the Christian must not assume that an unbeliever will accept the content of the biblical text as true simply because the manuscripts themselves have proved to be so trustworthy.
  There are a number of questions tied up here. The first issue has to do with our approach to the supernatural world. It is probably true to say that our postmodern society is much more open to the possibility of a supernatural realm than was the Enlightenment modernist worldview of previous generations. However, skepticism about these things does still exist in some portions of the population, and it is important for us to deal with the underlying reasons for this.

Skepticism About the Supernatural World

  One possible reason for disbelieving the content of the Gospels and the rest of the Bible is its recording of powerful miraculous events. What is the cause of this disbelief? Is the person assuming a framework in which miracles are a logical impossibility? Has this individual closed their mind to the possibility of miracles and supernatural occurrences? Do they believe only in the natural world and things which are scientifically provable?
  This skepticism is based on the ideas of the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). He argued that all objects of human inquiry are either “relations of ideas” (i.e., mathematical statements and definitions) or “matters of fact” (i.e., everything which can be known and tested empirically). Hume wrote:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

  However, there are serious problems with this position. The main one is that Hume’s philosophy fails its own test, because his own statement fits into neither of his categories. As Norman Geisler comments:

The statement that “only analytic or empirical propositions are meaningful” is not itself an analytic (true by definition) or empirical statement. Hence, by its own criteria it is meaningless.

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