1001 errors, 500 witnesses, accuracy, Africanus, Aland, Augustine, Babylonia, Balfour Declaration, Bible, biblical, biblical flood, biblical year, birth, Black, British Mandate of Palestine, Bruce Metzger, Byzantine, calendar, Celsus, Cerinthus, China, Christians, christology, crucifixion, Dead Sea Scrolls, death, Diatessaron, earthquake, eclipse, Ezekiel, Gospels, Greek, Gregorian calendar, Guadeloupe, Hebrew, Hebrew calendar, Hitler, Isaac Newton, Islam, Israel, Jerome, Jesus, Jews, Joe Wallack, John, Josephus, Julian calendar, King James, Latin Vulgate, Leviticus, Luke, lunisolar, manuscripts, mark, Martini, Matthew, Middle Ages, Nestle-Aland, New Testament, Nissan, Noah's Ark, nonbiblical, Old Testament, Origen, Palestine Mandate of the League of Nations, Paul, Persia, prophecies, punishment, rainfall, Reunion Island, Robert Anderson, Romans, scripture, Shangdi, solar year, studies, synoptic problem, Tatian, Timothy, United Bible Societies, United Nations Partition Plan, Wilgren, year 0, Zionist Organization
This is an article I wrote for American writing site Helium now defunct.
In my view, the Bible is one of the least trustworthy (purportedly) non-fiction works ever written. Let’s look at the background of the New Testament first. No original manuscripts remain and we are unsure who wrote them or when. For the gospels, there are various dates given, usually a range of dates, and often quite a wide range spanning several decades. The earliest generally accepted date for one or two of the gospels is probably from about the mid 60s CE. Why wait more than 30 years before putting reed to papyrus, as it were, if Jesus was such an important person?
There is much debate over which of the four gospels was written first. Matthew is traditionally first, although Mark is increasingly thought to be first, while some even think Luke was first. There is the synoptic problem among these three books, which are far too close to one another to have been written by three independent authors. Yet there are some odd inconsistencies such as Jesus’ ancestry between Mark and Luke. Matthew probably didn’t write the gospel attributed to him. Luke may have written Acts too, although both books may have been partly written by or sourced from Josephus. Mark probably wrote his gospel, but whether he was a witness is pure speculation. John’s book is regarded as an unreliable source of Jesus’ life and may have been written by several authors, including for example Cerinthus in the 2nd century. The four traditional writers were rejected as early as c. 100 CE.
Authorship of many of the other New Testament books has also been questioned for a long time. Authors and dates can be guesswork when, apart from a fragment of the Book of John, there is nothing else before c. 200 CE, with the earliest manuscripts for many books dating to the 3rd or 4th century.
Most of the numerous changes to the original biblical manuscripts came in the first few centuries. There was much bickering among early Christians as to what was scripture, and various christological issues were hotly debated. This meant that documents went through more changes than other less controversial documents. Many of the writings were chopped and changed amid followers accusing one another of corrupting text. Second century philosopher Celsus said that some of the writers “changed the original text of the gospels three or four times or even more, with the intention of thus being able to destroy the arguments of their critics”. Tatian’s Diatessaron was one of a number of works that aimed to rewrite the gospels as a narrative, fixing conflicting passages and eliminating duplication. In the third century, Origen admitted that “there is much diversity among the manuscripts, due either to the carelessness of the scribes, or to the perverse audacity of some people in correcting the text, or again to the fact that there are those who add or delete as they please, setting themselves up as correctors”. Many other early church leaders, such as Jerome and Augustine, were concerned about the extent of changes to biblical documents.
Further, there are issues with language itself. Many early New Testament manuscripts, such as Paul’s letters, used no punctuation and this was added later. The inadvertent wrong placement, or omission, of punctuation can completely change the meaning. Also, the Hebrew and ancient Greek languages have idioms that are difficult to translate. And then there is the problem of finding scribes fluent in old and new languages.
‘Proofs’ of the Bible’s accuracy often date back to the 19th century and the methods never seem to be explained. A figure that is often quoted as the degree of accuracy of the New Testament is 99.5%, although the original source is puzzling. It is sometimes sourced to Bruce Metzger’s 1963 publication, Chapters in the History of New Testament Textual Criticism, but the problem is that there is no mention of 99.5% or any similar figure in Metzger, or any other original source that I know of.
The figure of 99.5% or anything close to it is most unlikely. Less than 1% of the 5700-odd New Testament manuscripts are complete and less than 10% include most of it. None of them are originals and every single one is different. About half of the manuscripts date to the 12th or 13th century or later, and less than 3% date back to ancient times. At least 80% of the manuscripts are in Byzantine text and are therefore unreliable, but this was the predominant text used from c. 600 CE until the advent of printing in the 15th century; and these were the manuscripts used for the early printed editions. New editions of the Greek New Testament don’t tend to use the Byzantine text manuscripts. There have been thousands of versions of the Bible through the ages. By c. 1500 a version of the Latin Vulgate was regarded as no longer following the gospel. In fact, the church wandered so far from biblical teachings by the 16th century that it split. The King James version contains thousands of errors.
A study of accuracy for which there is evidence is by Aland and Aland in their 1995 publication, The Text Of The New Testament. They compare Nestle-Aland’s Greek New Testament with seven other editions and conclude that 62.9% of verses in the Nestle-Aland version differ from at least one of these editions. This excludes differences in spelling or of one word. The proportion of variant-free verses is highest for 1 Timothy at 81.4% (the only one above 80%) and lowest for Mark at 45.1% accuracy. The gospels together score just 54.5%, with none being above 60%.
Another study, by Aland, Black, Martini, Metzger and Wikgren in 1968 using slightly different criteria, found that 81.8% of verses of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament were textually certain, 1.6% were virtually certain, 6.1% were doubtful to some degree, 8.8% were of considerable doubt and 1.7% were very highly doubtful. Adding in the ‘virtually certains’, this gives an accuracy of 83.4%. In other words, there was uncertainty with over 1300 verses, including more than 830 of considerable doubt or worse.
These studies only consider variations between different versions. Neither study takes into account that much of what is in the Bible is arguably fiction to start with, such as many or most references to Jesus, given that a historical figure can’t be reliably found in any non-biblical source. And there’s no mention of Jesus in the Dead Sea Scrolls. His birth and death dates are usually given as a range of possible dates spanning several years. Islam believes the crucifixion was an illusion. If there was a three hour eclipse and an earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people would have witnessed it, and the time, day, month and year of Jesus’ death would have been well known and written in various documents, biblical and nonbiblical by the late first century. And whatever happened to Paul’s 500 witnesses?
Numerous articles, books and websites point out specific textual and other problems with the Bible. One that I like is Joe Wallack’s site, http://www.1001errors.com. It is not necessarily the best one or the worst one, but it’s well structured and goes through the verses of the first five books in turn. One of my favorite biblical errors, and an important one in my view, isn’t among the 1001 errors. This is the inconsistency over the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19:14 suggests Jesus’ crucifixion was sometime after the sixth hour, while Mark 15:25, says it was at the third hour. Christians try and explain away this contradiction by saying that John was using the Roman system of counting hours from midnight. The problem is that although the Romans’ civil day went from midnight to midnight, they counted their hours from sunrise to sunset and from sunset to sunrise. No one counted hours from midnight. To do so would assume 24 hours of equal length all year round, and clocks simply weren’t accurate or practical enough for this to happen. Daytime was divided into 12 equal hours that varied in length according to the time of year. Thus when John said the sixth hour and Mark said the third hour, they were both counting hours in the usual way and meant early to mid morning and middle of the day respectively. Whoever wrote this part of John, 60 or so years after the crucifixion, probably thought the death occurred early during the alleged eclipse, whereas Mark believed the eclipse came about three hours after Jesus’ death.
Is the Old Testament any more trustworthy? It probably is, but not greatly so. The earliest Old Testament writings probably date to c. 1200 BCE. Yet the reference period goes several thousand years further back. Accurate accounts of the period would have been impossible. Writings would have been based on oral stories handed down over generations, complete with embellishments, gaps, and errors increasing with each generation. But people wanted answers such as where did they come from. An author who was able to reduce this to a manageable number of generations had more credence. Thus there are tall stories of people living many hundreds of years.
One of my favorite Old Testament stories is Noah’s Ark and how the earth was covered in water to a depth of twenty feet above the highest mountain after forty days of rain. Let’s stop to think what this means. Coastal plains would be under about five and a half miles of water, and the oceans and seas would be five and a half miles deeper than usual. Five and a half miles is 348,480 inches. If this amount of rain fell in 40 days, that would be an average of 8712 inches a day, 363 inches an hour and 6.05 inches a minute, worldwide. Rainfall intensity records as at 2006 are given as 73.62 inches in a day at Reunion Island in 1952, 15.78 inches in an hour at Shangdi, China in 1975 and 1.50 inches in one minute at Guadeloupe in 1970 (see www.weatherrecords.owlinc.org/RainfallRecords1.html). This means that rain resulting in the biblical flood would have been four times the intensity of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded over one minute and this had to last 40 days across the whole planet. Noah’s family, the animals, and the ark would have been obliterated by rain like sheets of concrete. Nothing would have survived the rain, let alone the flood. Apart from all this, the rain has to come from somewhere. You can’t have this much evaporation and condensation in a short period.
As another example of the untrustworthiness of the Old Testament, let’s look at the prophecies. Many prophecies made in the Old Testament are allegedly confirmed in the New Testament. But let’s pick one of the trickier, harder-to-refute ones, complete with time scale rather than just a vague statement. It would be easy to say the Old Testament predicted the birth of Jesus and this came true in the New Testament, even though it was written best part of a century after the event, and there’s no corroborative evidence, or any firm date as to when it happened, only a range of dates that generally extend from 8 BCE to 2 BCE.
So let’s try something more difficult. Many of the prophecies relate to a resurgence of the Jews and of Israel. I’ll work through the one that seemingly prophesies the exact day of Israel’s re-establishment on 14 May 1948. We can get this from Ezekiel 4:3-6 and Leviticus 26:18, 26:21, 26:24 and 26:28, which refer to a set period of punishment of the Jews, although I don’t think there’s any explicit reference to a re-establishment anywhere in the Bible. The sevenfold punishment of the Jews for not returning to their homeland started in 536 BCE, 70 years after an initial punishment of 430 years. Thus, multiplying 360 by 7 equals 2520 years. According to the Bible, the year length in those days was 360 days, so adjusting for this, we purportedly arrive at 2484 years exactly (sometimes it’s given as 2485 years) between the first day of the Babylonian month of Nissan and the Gregorian 14 May 1948. Incidentally, 2484 solar years equals 907,281 days if you assume a solar year is 365.25 days. Using the more accurate 365.2424 day solar year gives 907,262 days. Multiplying 2520 years by 360 gives 907,200. So for a start, the timing is out by 2-3 months. That’s still close. But wait a minute.
The biblical year of 360 days is also mentioned by Africanus, Isaac Newton, Robert Anderson and others. They’re not wrong. Most years were indeed 360 days in length in those times. However, just as we add a leap day every fourth year to stay in line with the solar year, most ancient civilisations added a 13th month every few years, or they added a few days at year’s end. Thus these calendars were lunisolar. The calendars tended to be a bit all over the place. And there were numerous regional variations. But at the time, there were no lengthy periods where each and every year was 360 days. In the long-term, the average length of a calendar year equalled a solar year. Agriculture and thus human life depended on it! Every calendar the Jews came into contact with to any extent between 536 BCE and 45 BCE when the Julian calendar came into effect in Rome was lunisolar. These calendars were the Hebrew calendar and those of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, when Israel was part of these empires. References to any long period of years would have been to solar years. Thus the date of the re-establishment of Israel differed from that prophesised in the Bible by about 36 years.
There’s another interesting little glitch in the argument. The difference between 536 BCE and 1948 CE is often given as 2484 years, by simply adding the numbers. The problem is that there was no year 0, either BCE or CE. Thus the elapsed time between these two dates is actually 2483 years. Had there been a year 0 BCE or a year 0 CE, then the interval would be 2484 years. Had there been both a year 0 BCE and a year 0 CE, then the interval would be 2485 years.
The final nail in the coffin of this prophecy relates to the fact that the date of 14 May 1948 as the biblical end of the Jews’ punishment has been known since medieval times. Back then, however, access to documents was limited and if the Old Testament talked about a 360 day year, it was probably assumed that all years at that time were 360 days rather than most years. There is nothing in the Bible about BC or AD or no year zero as this was all worked out many years after the Bible had become reasonably set. Scholars made the calculations using what information they had, and locked in 14 May 1948, which carried into modern times.
Something important was always going to happen on this date. Jews started moving back to Israel from the Middle Ages. Migration increased and it was strong by the 1880s, probably partly due to knowledge of the 14 May 1948 date. By the late 19th century there was a move to re-establish a Jewish state, and the Zionist Organization was formed in 1897. Then there were the British government’s Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the British Mandate of Palestine from 1920, which was supported by the Palestine Mandate of the League of Nations in 1922. The 14 May 1948 date was known by world leaders, including Hitler, as well as leading industrialists who included Christians and Bible-reading Jews. The United Nations Partition Plan was in 1947, and Israel declared its own independence one day before British withdrawal, a date obviously worked out in advance. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel contains historical background, including reference to “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”.
By reading some of the Christian sites, a reader could get the impression that sometime after Israel was re-established, someone happened to pick up a Bible, did some calculations and made an amazing discovering that the re-establishment was on the exact day prophesised two and a half millennia ago, as if nothing had been previously known about the date. But as we’ve seen, no incredible coincidence or miracle was involved. It was all quite planned, even if it was out by 36 years.
In conclusion, the Bible is such a mixture of facts, part-truths, errors, contradictions and pure fiction that it cannot be relied upon as a trustworthy source of information.