This topical page is about evidence. As was described in the page on Life, the Universe and Everything, there are two kinds of proof; scientific and legal/historical. This page deals with legal/historical evidence about some important topics related to the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Please keep in mind that this type of evidence is the kind that you would find in a court of law, not a science laboratory. The title of Josh McDowell's book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, describes it well.
As such, I will not rehash the section on the worldview page which discusses reasons to believe that God exists. The arguments there are not based on legal/historical evidence, but are rather are drawn from careful consideration of scientifically observed aspects of the Universe. Rather, this page will focus on historical support for events such as the resurrection of Christ, as well as the accuracy of modern Biblical texts with respect to the original versions.
From the Christian point of view, the resurrection of Christ is central. It forms the foundation for the entire faith. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then he was not who he claimed to be, and all of his other words are also suspect. On the other hand, if he truly did rise from the dead, then this event effectively validates his claims, both for himself and for the Old Testament, which he regarded as divinely inspired.
Jesus was a well-known figure in his day. While some try to claim that the only evidence of his existence is found in the Bible, that is simply not true. Several contemporary secular sources also make mention of him by name. It is very clear that the man Jesus the son of Joseph lived—and died—in the Roman province of Judea around the beginning of the first millennium.
The biggest difference between Christianity and other major world religions is the claim that its founder rose from the dead. Naturally, this account is found in the Biblical texts. However, for skeptics this is not enough. The common argument of skeptics is “show me”.
The burial places of other major religous leaders are known. For example, the tomb of Muhammad is located in the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi mosque in the city of Medina. Buddha was cremated and his relics placed in various locations, many of which are known; there is no claim of return to life. In the Old Testament, major figures such as Abraham and Moses are recorded as dying natural deaths, with no claim of resurrection. Only Jesus was different.
For a major public figure such as Jesus, his tomb would certainly have been well-known not only to his disciples, but to a large number of people of the time. If he really had not risen from the dead, it would have been a simple thing for skeptics to produce his body, or at the very least, produce a tomb with ample evidence that he was inside—and dead. No one has ever been able to do so.
It has been nearly 2000 years since Jesus lived and died. If he were still dead, in all that time someone would have managed to find his body and parade it before the world. Some may argue that it is not customary to look for the bodies of dead people, so why would anyone bother? The reason is because Jesus alone claimed to have risen from the dead. No one looks for Abraham's body, or Muhammad's body, because their followers did not make this claim. People look for evidence such as this only when there is controversy. The resurrection of Christ has been controversial ever since the time his followers claim it took place. So if there were evidence to the contrary, surely skeptics—and there have been many and very dedicated ones at that—would have found something by now. They haven't.
This argument can be summed up quite succinctly: no one in his right mind will die for what he knows to be a lie. People will die in defense of something that they honestly believe in. But if they know it to be a lie, death is just too high a price to pay. One way or another, they will capitulate to avoid facing it. And the more painful and torturous the death, the more quickly they will recant when confronted with it.
The Bible only records the deaths of two of Jesus' disciples, Judas and James the brother of John. Judas, of course, was a traitor and was recorded as having hanged himself out of remorse afterward. This kind of behavior is not inconsistent with human nature, by the way. James was “killed with the sword”, which indicates a type of execution. It was probably quick. Nevertheless, it was death, and if he really did not believe that Jesus was who he said he was, he would have no doubt done something to avoid it.
The deaths of the rest of the apostles was not recorded in Scripture. However, they were recorded in other traditions and writings. With the exception of John, who lived out a natural life and died of old age, most if not all of them died violent deaths (I say “most” only because in some cases the accounts are less reliable than in others). Several were crucified (one of the most painful means of execution ever devised by man). Others were beaten. Paul was beheaded.
Why is this important? You may point out that many people die for what they believe, even if it does not turn out to be true. The difference here is that they died because they claimed that they had actually seen the risen Jesus Christ, after the crucifixion. It was not merely something that they had heard or been taught. They claimed to be eyewitnesses. So if Christ really did not rise from the dead, then they would know that their claims were a lie. In which case the above arguments about people in their right mind not dying for what they know to be a lie would apply.
Many people have had a profound effect on history. When it comes to religious figures, one could easily point out Muhammad and Buddha as examples. What makes Jesus different is that his influence is based on his claims about himself—and that he rose from the dead. He is not remembered merely as a teacher or a prophet (though he did both during his time on Earth), but as the Savior who paid for man's sins by his death and then returned to life because he was really God in human form. His followers “turned the world upside down” because they were convinced of the resurrection. As was pointed out in the previous section, if they knew this to be false, they would not have gone to their deaths rather than recant their claims. It was this total conviction that set the stage for the tremendous influence that the followers of Christ have had upon human history.
Here are a few examples:
Every time you answer that question, you are in effect acknowledging that Jesus Christ was born and lived on Earth. There have been many calendar systems in human history, but the one that has had the greatest influence—indeed, is the one officially recognized for dating purposes throughout the world—is based upon the birth of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the year number is to count the number of years since Jesus was born. Even though it has been shown to be slighly off—he was probably born around 4 BC—the purpose remains the same; to recognize Christ.
Western Civilization and the Church are literally “joined at the hip”. Modernists often scorn the value of both, but any serious student of history will recognize the influence that the followers of Christ had on the Roman Empire and the rise of European civilization, whether they approve of that influence or not.
This is not to say that western civilization is perfect. The followers of Christ are as human as anyone else, and many deviations from the teachings of Christ occurred. The point is that the person of Jesus Christ has had an influence on human civilization that has lasted nearly 2000 years. Again, one can argue that Moses and Muhammad have likewise had a long-lasting influence. But only Jesus' influence is based upon the claim that he rose from the dead.
This is less a result of the influence of Christianity than it is a result of monotheism and the belief in a “rational creation”. But modern science arose in Europe and America, the bastions of Western civilization and Christian influence. For more on this subject, see the section on “The Influence of Monotheism on Science” on the page about The World Around Us.
Many may argue that Europe historically was not an egalitarian society, and they would be right. Even the history of slavery in England and the United States would seem to argue against this. However, in the modern efforts (within the last couple of hundred years) to end slavery and recognize all human beings as being “created equal” in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, the Christian church has been in the forefront. The abolitionist movement was driven by believers.
Going back to the beginning of the United States, the vast majority of the Founding Fathers were Christians. It was their worldview that led them to include the phrase saying that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration. Likewise, it was their worldview that led them to found a society with all of the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.
Click on the following links to read the founding documents of the United States of America. (Adobe Acrobat or other PDF reader is required to read them.)
Again, the connection may not be clear. But if Christ did not rise from the dead, then there would not have been a Christian Church to have the influence that it had on society, and it is doubtful that any society would ever have arisen where all human beings were considered equal.
One question often asked about Scripture texts—indeed, a question that can be asked about any ancient text—is “How well-preserved are the texts in comparison with the ancient originals?” In other words, are the texts that we have today the same as what the original authors wrote?
This does have bearing on whether or not we can believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. If it can be shown that the modern texts differ substantially from the originals, this begs the question: If God inspired the original text, could He not have done a better job in making sure it was accurately transmitted through the centuries? If this is the case, then there is little reason to believe that He inspired the texts in the first place. On the other hand, if the modern texts are shown to be accurate representations of the originals, while that in and of itself does not prove divine authorship, it would lend credence to the claim.
Let's look at evidence for the Old and New Testaments separately.
The Old Testament constitutes the bulk of the Bible, and is considerably older than the New Testament. It was originally written mostly in Hebrew, with a few chapters in Daniel being written in Aramaic. After returning from the Babylonian Captivity, the entire Old Testament was translated into Greek, which was rapidly becoming the most important language in that part of the world, and many Jews of the time spoke Greek as their primary tongue. So how well was it preserved over the centuries? Here are some factors to consider.
Believe it or not, there exist over 10,000 manuscripts containing all or part of the Old Testament. The earliest copies date from around 250 BC, less than 200 years after the last book (Malachi) was written. This number is far larger than for any other ancient manuscript. And for most ancient manuscripts there is usually a gap of at least 1000 years from the time of writing to the date of the earliest known copy. Modern translations of the Bible use as many of the original texts as can be found, in order to ensure accuracy. Therefore, we can state that the modern Scripture texts are at least an accurate representation of what the Jewish people used more than two centuries before the birth of Christ.
So how do those copies compare with earlier ones, going back to the originals? For that, let us take a look at the next factor.
The ancient Hebrew scribes copied Scripture texts by hand, since higher technology did not exist at the time. It is well-documented that their methods were extremely precise. They considered the texts to be the sacred Word of God and took the copying process very seriously. Years of training were involved. Texts were copied letter-by-letter, and then compared letter-by-letter. If there was even one discrepancy between the original and the copy, the copy was burned and the scribe started over. Such methods, along with other careful procedures, ensured that the Scripture that the Hebrews had was a true and accurate copy of what the original authors had written.
Before 1948, the earliest complete manuscripts of the Old Testament that scholars had in their hands only dated back about a thousand years. In 1948 a shepherd threw a rock into a cave and heard the sound of pottery shattering. This led to the discovery of what turned out to be a very complete library believed to have been left by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that existed from around 200 BC to around 100 AD. Copies of every book of the Old Testament except for Esther were found.
The significance of this find was that comparisons showed that the texts that scholars already had differed very little from the ones from a couple of centuries BC. Again, what we have today is a very accurate representation of what the original authors wrote.
The previous sections show that there is strong evidence that the Old Testament text that we have today is a true representation of the original copies. But even if this is the case, why believe them? They were copied accurately because the scribes—and later on the Christians—believed them to be the Word of God. But why believe this?
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus affirmed the divine authority of what we now call the Old Testament. Of course, this claim is only as valid as the reliability of Jesus' own word. He claimed to be the Son of God, and to have all authority (Matthew 28:18). At one point he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days,” referring to the “temple” of his body (John 2:19-22). He based his claim on the idea that he would rise from the dead.
Therefore, if we follow this to its logical conclusion, the evidence for divine inspiration of the Old Testament is based directly upon the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. Regarding that topic, I refer you to the previous main section.
While we do not have Jesus' authority directly supporting divine inspiration of the New Testament, since it had not yet been written when he was on Earth, there is nevertheless plenty of evidence supporting the accuracy of modern texts with respect to the originals.
Historians have been able to reconstruct and/or validate a number of secular manuscripts dating from Biblical times with a high degree of accuracy. These include documents such as Josephus' The Jewish War, Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome, Thucydides' History, Caesar's Gallic Wars, Herodotus' History, the works of Plato, and Homer's Iliad. The Iliad is by far and away the best preserved, with 647 existing copies of ancient manuscripts. The Annals of Imperial Rome, on the other hand, are based on only two existing copies.
When we come to the New Testament, however, as of 1980 there were 5366 separate Greek manuscripts containing anywhere from fragments to even a few copies of the entire text. This does not even count the translations into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and other languages, all of which were done by the third and fourth centuries AD. The most compelling texts are actually some of the fragments, which contain all or part of individual books, because they date from before the canon of Scripture was completed. Some of these fragments date all the way back to the second century, including one fragment of the Gospel of John found in Egypt. This last fragment was in circulation only 30 years after John wrote the original manuscript.
A study was made of the 7 major editions of the Greek text, each one compiled by different teams and/or persons over an extended period of time. Out of a total of 7947 verses, 4999 of them were absolutely consistent across all 7 versions. And when you take into account differences that only appear in at most 2 or 3 of the versions, the agreement rate climbs over 99%. Furthermore, the textual variations found do not in any way affect any doctrine found in the New Testament.
Some have claimed that church officials later on modified the text to “eliminate discrepancies”. However, there are arguments against this type of “conspiracy theory”. For one, it is essentially impossible that the supposed conspirators could have managed to find and eliminate all earlier texts that they had “corrected”. Furthermore, analysis of known discrepancies between texts shows that 95% of them are unintentional—confusion of similar letters, repetition of words or sentences, or just plain bad copying (evidently not all copyists in the Church Age followed the same stringent procedures as the earlier Hebrew scribes).
Of the remaining 5%, most of these discrepancies were a result of spelling or grammar changes, with a few that actually reflected attempts to make certain passages reflect accepted doctrine. However, comparison of manuscripts clearly shows which documents were “doctored”, and thus scholars and translators can take these cases of deliberate editing into consideration and reject clear instances of meddling with the text.
Essentially, enough different copies of the original manuscripts exist that it is possible to be 100% certain of nearly the entire New Testament text. Only a couple of passages—the final verses of the Gospel of Mark, and the account of the woman caught in adultery in John—present enough doubt that some scholars still question them.
The conversion of Saul—also known by his Latin name “Paul”—is an interesting topic in and of itself. Saul was a Pharisee, a member of a segment of Jewish society known for their strict adherence to the Law of Moses. During his time on Earth, Jesus had made it clear that no one could be justified by obeying the Law, which flew in the face of the traditions of the Pharisees. As a result, after Jesus ascended into the heavens and his followers began to multiply (the early Church), Saul became one of their most ardent persecutors.
It was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus that Christ appeared to Saul in a vision and called him to be a follower. The conversion was so dramatic and unexpected that other followers of Christ at first refused to accept him. It was only after his completely changed life became evident to all that he was finally accepted as a brother.
The importance of Saul's conversion was the complete, 180-degree turnaround in his life. Given what we know of human nature, these things do not happen without a powerful cause. Something happened on that road to Damascus that cannot be explained by a “bump on the head”, or an exploding meteor (the bright light that shone) or anything natural. Something pointed him in the direction of the very One whose followers he was doing everything in his power to destroy. He claimed repeatedly that it was the resurrected Jesus Christ himself who appeared to him. Since Paul was later on executed in Rome for preaching about the resurrected Christ, it stands to reason that if he knew it was merely a lie, he would have done something to avoid execution. But like the apostles, he was willing to die for what he proclaimed.
Like Jesus, there is too much influence on history by Paul's works and writings for him to be dismissed as a fictional character. He is mentioned by name in some ancient manuscripts that are not part of the New Testament. He wrote nearly half of the books found in the New Testament. In the final chapter of his first letter, Peter refers to Paul's writings as “scripture”.
In brief, Saul's conversion was an event that cannot be adequately explained in natural terms. Instead, it is one more piece of evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His writings were viewed by the early Church Fathers as being divinely inspired, in the same manner as the Old Testament writings. A number of small things, but in the legal-historical sense they add up to being more strong evidence in favor of the Bible being the inspired Word of God.
Copyright © 2005-2020 William R. Penning. All rights reserved.