Can This Book Be Trusted?
“I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane [secular] history whatsoever.”—Sir Isaac Newton, renowned English scientist.1
CAN this book—the Bible—be trusted? Does it refer to people who really lived, places that actually existed, and events that truly happened? If so, there should be evidence that it was written by careful, honest writers. Proof does exist. Much of it has been found buried in the earth, and even more is contained within the book itself.
Digging Up the Evidence
The discovery of ancient artifacts buried in Bible lands has supported the historical and geographic accuracy of the Bible. Consider just some of the evidence that archaeologists have dug up.
David, the courageous young shepherd who became king of Israel, is well-known to readers of the Bible. His name appears 1,138 times in the Bible, and the expression “House of David”—often referring to his dynasty—occurs 25 times. (1 Samuel 16:13; 20:16) Until recently, though, there was no clear evidence outside the Bible that David existed. Was David merely a fictitious character?
In 1993 a team of archaeologists, led by Professor Avraham Biran, made an astounding discovery, which was reported in Israel Exploration Journal. At the site of an ancient mound called Tel Dan, in the northern part of Israel, they uncovered a basalt stone. Carved into the stone are the words “House of David” and “King of Israel.”2 The inscription, dated to the ninth century B.C.E., is said to be part of a victory monument erected by Aramaeans—enemies of Israel who lived to the east. Why is this ancient inscription so significant?
Based on a report by Professor Biran and his colleague, Professor Joseph Naveh, an article in Biblical Archaeology Review stated: “This is the first time that the name David has been found in any ancient inscription outside the Bible.”3* Something else is noteworthy about the inscription. The expression “House of David” is written as one word. Language expert Professor Anson Rainey explains: “A word divider . . . is often omitted, especially if the combination is a well-established proper name. ‘The House of David’ was certainly such a proper political and geographic name in the mid-ninth century B.C.E.”5 So King David and his dynasty evidently were well-known in the ancient world.
Did Nineveh—the great city of Assyria mentioned in the Bible—really exist? As recently as the early 19th century, some Bible critics refused to believe so. But in 1849, Sir Austen Henry Layard unearthed ruins of King Sennacherib’s palace at Kuyunjik, a site that proved to be part of ancient Nineveh. The critics were thus silenced on that score. But these ruins had more to tell. On the walls of one well-preserved chamber was a display showing the capture of a well-fortified city, with captives being marched before the invading king. Above the king is this inscription: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, sat upon a nîmedu -throne and passed in review the booty (taken) from Lachish (La-ki-su).”6
This display and inscription, which can be viewed in the British Museum, agree with the Bible’s account of the capture of the Judean city of Lachish by Sennacherib, recorded at 2 Kings 18:13, 14. Commenting on the significance of the find, Layard wrote: “Who would have believed it probable or possible, before these discoveries were made, that beneath the heap of earth and rubbish which marked the site of Nineveh, there would be found the history of the wars between Hezekiah [king of Judah] and Sennacherib, written at the very time when they took place by Sennacherib himself, and confirming even in minute details the Biblical record?”7
Archaeologists have dug up many other artifacts—pottery, ruins of buildings, clay tablets, coins, documents, monuments, and inscriptions—that confirm the accuracy of the Bible. Excavators have uncovered the Chaldean city of Ur, the commercial and religious center where Abraham lived.8 (Genesis 11:27-31) The Nabonidus Chronicle, unearthed in the 19th century, describes Babylon’s fall to Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C.E., an event narrated in Daniel chapter 5.9 An inscription (fragments of which are preserved in the British Museum) found on an archway in ancient Thessalonica contains the names of city rulers described as “politarchs,” a word unknown in classical Greek literature but used by the Bible writer Luke.10 (Acts 17:6, footnote) Luke’s accuracy was thus vindicated in this—as it had already been in other details.—Compare Luke 1:3.
Archaeologists, however, do not always agree with one another, let alone with the Bible. Even so, the Bible contains within itself strong evidence that it is a book that can be trusted.
Presented With Candor
Honest historians would record not just victories (like the inscription regarding Sennacherib’s capture of Lachish) but also defeats, not just successes but also failures, not just strengths but also weaknesses. Few secular histories reflect such honesty.
Regarding Assyrian historians, Daniel D. Luckenbill explains: “Often it is clear that royal vanity demanded playing fast and loose with historical accuracy.”11 Illustrating such “royal vanity,” the annals of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal boast: “I am regal, I am lordly, I am exalted, I am mighty, I am honored, I am glorified, I am pre-eminent, I am powerful, I am valiant, I am lion-brave, and I am heroic!”12 Would you accept everything you read in such annals as accurate history?
In contrast, the Bible writers displayed refreshing candor. Moses, Israel’s leader, frankly reported the shortcomings of his brother, Aaron, of his sister Miriam, of his nephews Nadab and Abihu, and of his people, as well as his own mistakes. (Exodus 14:11, 12; 32:1-6; Leviticus 10:1, 2; Numbers 12:1-3; 20:9-12; 27:12-14) The serious mistakes of King David were not covered over but were committed to writing—and that while David was still ruling as king. (2 Samuel, chapters 11 and 24) Matthew, writer of the book bearing his name, tells how the apostles (of which he was one) disputed over their personal importance and how they abandoned Jesus on the night of his arrest. (Matthew 20:20-24; 26:56) The writers of the letters of the Christian Greek Scriptures freely acknowledged the problems, including sexual immorality and dissensions, in some of the early Christian congregations. And they did not mince words in addressing those problems.—1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 5:1-13.
Such frank, open reporting indicates a sincere concern for truth. Since the Bible writers were willing to report unfavorable information about their loved ones, their people, and even themselves, is there not good reason to trust their writings?
Accurate in Details
In court trials the credibility of a witness’ testimony can often be determined on the basis of minor facts. Agreement on minor details may stamp the testimony as accurate and honest, whereas serious discrepancies can expose it as a fabrication. On the other hand, an overly tidy account—one in which every last detail is neatly arranged—may also betray a false testimony.
How does the “testimony” of the Bible writers measure up in this regard? The Bible penmen displayed remarkable consistency. There is close agreement about even minute details. However, the harmony is not carefully arranged, arousing suspicions of collusion. There is an obvious lack of design in the coincidences, the writers often agreeing unintentionally. Consider some examples.
The Bible writer Matthew wrote: “And Jesus, on coming into Peter’s house, saw his mother-in-law lying down and sick with fever.” (Matthew 8:14) Matthew here provided an interesting but nonessential detail: Peter was married. This minor fact is supported by Paul, who wrote: “Have I no right to take a Christian wife about with me, like the rest of the apostles and . . . Cephas?”* (1 Corinthians 9:5, The New English Bible) The context indicates that Paul was defending himself against unwarranted criticism. (1 Corinthians 9:1-4) Plainly, this small fact—Peter’s being married—is not introduced by Paul to support the accuracy of Matthew’s account but is conveyed incidentally.
All four of the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—record that on the night of Jesus’ arrest, one of his disciples drew a sword and struck a slave of the high priest, taking off the man’s ear. Only the Gospel of John reports a seemingly unnecessary detail: “The name of the slave was Malchus.” (John 18:10, 26) Why does John alone give the man’s name? A few verses later the account provides a minor fact not stated anywhere else: John “was known to the high priest.” He was also known to the high priest’s household; the servants were acquainted with him, and he with them. (John 18:15, 16) It was only natural, then, that John mention the injured man’s name, whereas the other Gospel writers, to whom the man was a stranger, do not.
At times, detailed explanations are omitted from one account but are provided elsewhere by statements made in passing. For instance, Matthew’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Jewish Sanhedrin says that some people present “slapped him in the face, saying: ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ. Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26:67, 68) Why would they ask Jesus to “prophesy” who had struck him, when the striker was standing there in front of him? Matthew does not explain. But two of the other Gospel writers supply the missing detail: Jesus’ persecutors covered his face before he was slapped. (Mark 14:65; Luke 22:64) Matthew presents his material without concern as to whether every last detail was supplied.
The Gospel of John tells of an occasion when a large crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach. According to the record, when Jesus observed the crowd, “he said to Philip: ‘Where shall we buy loaves for these to eat?’” (John 6:5) Of all the disciples present, why did Jesus ask Philip where they could buy some bread? The writer does not say. In the parallel account, though, Luke reports that the incident took place near Bethsaida, a city on the north shores of the Sea of Galilee, and earlier in John’s Gospel it says that “Philip was from Bethsaida.” (John 1:44; Luke 9:10) So Jesus logically asked a person whose hometown was nearby. The agreement between the details is remarkable, yet clearly unwitting.
In some cases the omission of certain details only adds to the credibility of the Bible writer. For example, the writer of 1 Kings tells of a severe drought in Israel. It was so severe that the king could not find enough water and grass to keep his horses and mules alive. (1 Kings 17:7; 18:5) Yet, the same account reports that the prophet Elijah ordered enough water to be brought to him on Mount Carmel (for use in connection with a sacrifice) to fill a trench circumscribing an area of perhaps 10,000 square feet [1,000 sq m]. (1 Kings 18:33-35) In the midst of the drought, where did all the water come from? The writer of 1 Kings did not trouble himself to explain. However, anyone living in Israel knew that Carmel was on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as an incidental remark later in the narrative indicates. (1 Kings 18:43) Thus, seawater would have been readily available. If this otherwise detailed book were merely fiction masquerading as fact, why would its writer, who in that case would be a clever forger, have left such an apparent difficulty in the text?
So can the Bible be trusted? Archaeologists have dug up enough artifacts to confirm that the Bible refers to real people, real places, and real events. Even more compelling, however, is the evidence found within the Bible itself. Candid writers spared no one—not even themselves—in recording the hard facts. The internal consistency of the writings, including the coincidences without design, gives the “testimony” the clear ring of truth. With such “sure marks of authenticity,” the Bible is, indeed, a book you can trust.
After that discovery, Professor André Lemaire reported that a new reconstruction of a damaged line on the Mesha stela (also called the Moabite Stone), discovered in 1868, reveals that it also contains a reference to the “House of David.”4
“Cephas” is the Semitic equivalent of “Peter.”—John 1:42.
[Picture on page 15]
The Tel Dan fragment
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Assyrian wall relief depicting siege of Lachish, mentioned at 2 Kings 18:13, 14