Most people have asked, or at least wondered, something to the effect of, “How do we know the guys who wrote the Bible just didn’t make all that stuff up?” Such questions dealing with the Bible’s trustworthiness and accuracy should be answered honestly and clearly.
The approach to assessing whether the Bible is accurate in what it reports is the same used to evaluate any other historical book. The legal/forensic method and its principles are employed to judge the validity of historical texts and whether the reported testimony is factual. There are three primary tests historians use within the forensic method:
First is the bibliographical test. This examines the reliability of the available manuscripts and the time that elapsed between the events in question and their recording. When applied to the New Testament, literally no other ancient text measures up. The New Testament has tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts that can be extensively compared to each other; plus, those manuscripts have the earliest dating to its recorded events of any historical book. In other words, the books of the New Testament were written very soon after the events they describe, leaving no room for legend to creep in. In fact, Paul cites more than 500 eyewitnesses to the risen Christ, “most of whom are still living”—meaning that his readers were free to check out the truth for themselves and confirm the accuracy of what he wrote.
Another proof of the New Testament’s early dating exists in the writings of early Christian leaders such as Clement (c. AD 95), Ignatius (c. AD 107), Polycarp (c. AD 110), Justin Martyr (c. AD 133), and others. Historians have determined that the entire New Testament could be completely reconstructed from citations from the early church fathers, with the exception of 27 verses, most of which come from 3 John.
The second test used by historians to assess the accuracy of ancient texts, including the Bible, is the internal evidence test. This test concerns itself with whether there are multiple attestations of the events in question and whether those accounts are free of contradictions (i.e., do they match?). With respect to the New Testament, multiple eyewitness accounts exist that all tell the same story. As for contradictions or manuscript variants, the overwhelming majority of biblical variants are inconsequential, consisting of spelling and numerical differences, sentence word order changes, etc. This leads scholars such as Neil Lightfoot to say, “Practically all of the variations found among the manuscripts do not affect our present text. Although a few textual problems remain, these are explained in the footnotes of most recent translations” (How We Got the Bible, Baker, 2003, p. 104).
The third and final historiographical test for accuracy is the external evidence test, which asks if evidence outside the document in question corroborates the text. In the case of both the Old and New Testament, countless archaeological discoveries validate the historicity of the Bible. In addition, works such as Robert Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament chronicle what non-biblical writers had to say about Jesus.
To sum up, using historians’ three key tests from the forensic/legal method for validating the trustworthiness of an ancient text, no other work from ancient history comes close to matching the reliability and accuracy of the Bible.