Most people, when reading an old piece of literature don't think about putting the book through a test to see if the author listed on the book is really in fact the actual author. Most who read a piece from Homer, Aristotle or even a piece of literature by the likes of Shakespeare, assume what they are reading is the original work by that author. When it comes to the authenticity of the Bible however, many people who don't believe in it, or believe it's some ancient book of fables many people don't realize that the Bible has been tested for validity. Those who may scoff at someone who believes the Bible is unique and inspired by God, those who might think that we are believers in some archaic book, written over 2000 years ago, which is unreliable, full of error and discrepancies find our claims that the Bible is the Word of God a ridiculous statement and that we are fools for believing this.
There really is no set test for historians to determine the validity or accuracy of any other ancient piece of literature-but there is for testing the truthful reliability of the Bible. For historical documents, there are basic methods for testing the authenticity- these being, 1) bibliography, 2) internal evidence, and 3) external evidence.
The bibliographical test examine how documents come down through the years and centuries. Since in many cases there are no original documents, the reliability of manuscripts is not a sure thing in regard to the number of known manuscripts and the time between when the original was said to be written to the date of the existing copies. For example, Homer's Iliad was written sometime in 900 BC but the earliest copy is dated at somewhere in 400 BC- a difference of 500 years. There are 643 known copies (manuscripts). How about Caesar's Gaelic Wars/ It was composed sometime between 58 and 50 BC, but the oldest of the nine or ten existing manuscripts that are even in decent condition is dated nearly 900 years later than Caesar's day. Here's one more. Of the 14 books of the Histories of Tacticus, which were written around 100 AD, only 4 and a half survived all this time, and of the 16 books of his Annals, 10 survive in full, and 2 in part. There are only 2 manuscripts, one dated from the 800's and the other in the 1000's AD. There are so many other cases based on history books and annals written in ancient times to where we are able to know ancient history, and what we base our knowledge on. How does the Bible compare in the bibliographical test?
First of all, there are now more than 5300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, over 10, 000 of the Latin Vulgate, 9300 other early versions and more than 24, 000 manuscripts of portions of the N.T. In comparison, Homer's Iliad comes in second place for numbers of manuscripts at only 643. Careful studies of the different readings of various early manuscripts shows that none of them affects any doctrine of Scripture. This goes for the Old Testament as well- as what is written in standard Hebrew texts of the Old Testament is not changed or altered by any of the variant readings of manuscripts of earlier dates. The amazing discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that later manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments are almost exactly the same, except for a few punctuation or spelling errors- basically putting to rest many arguments that the Scriptures have been changed or corrupted over the centuries.
In many cases, there is further support of reliability by various versions of manuscripts. Considering that ancient literature was rarely translated into other languages, Christianity, on the other hand, was missionary based right from the beginning. That means that the earliest versions of the New Testament were made by missionaries to spread the Gospel amongpeople who spoke Syriac, Latin and Coptic. Syriac and Latin versions of the N.T were made around 150 AD- which is very near the time of the originals. There are nearly 15000 existing manuscripts of various versions.
Someone once wondered what would happen if every single copy of the New Testament was lost or destroyed by the end of the 3rd century- would there be any way to collect it all together again just by using the writings of those in the church in the second and third century? A man by the name Sir David Dalrymple searched and researched through the church fathers writings- and was able to find the entire N.T except for 11 verses.
In the case of the Old Testament, there isn't quite the abundance of evidence in manuscripts as for the N.T. Until the Dead Sea discoveries, the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript was dated around 900 AD. This made a time gap of 1300 years, because the Hebrew Old Testament was completed about 400 BC. After the Dead Sea discoveries though, a number of Old Testament manuscripts have been found by historians and scholars date before the time of Christ.
Take also the methods in which the earliest Hebrew Scribes copied out the Old Testament Scriptures- no one in any other groups have been as meticulous about Copying as the early scribes. The regulations alone in which they had to follow made a case for why there are fewer manuscripts for the O.T than the N.T. After having to follow more than 15 rules for copy work, and painstaking copying, any rolls which were found where the regulations were not followed to the letter were made to be buried in the ground or burned. Compared to other ancient writings of the period- such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is amazing how the Hebrew texts have none of the discrepancies and manuscript change as these other ancient writings. Two copies of Isaiah were discovered in one of the caves in 1947 were older than the previously known manuscript- dated 980 AD- yet they proved to be word for word, identical to modern standard Bible texts in more than 95% of the text. The 5 % variations were mainly variations of spelling. They don't affect the message of the scriptures in any way.
in my next post, I'll go into detail of the second test- internal evidence, to show how the Bible is true and reliable. I could go on and on about bibliography alone- but for the sake of time I won't- I'll only add that with all the evidence, I can trust and believe that the Bible is more reliable trustworthy- is way better than any other record of ancient texts.
Note- although I've studied this topic in many books by many authors- I have based much of this entry on material by Josh MDowell, from his book A Ready Defense.