Ask Ivor

Gretchen asks:

"Where is the evidence that shows that the events in the Bible really occurred?"

There are different kinds of evidence.

First, let's look at the manuscript evidence.

Too often uninformed people say something like this: "How can we be sure what Jesus actually said? The Bible has been copied and translated and retranslated so many times, over the centuries, that it's impossible to know what really happened."

However, this is simply not the case—in fact, it's nonsense.

Consider our knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history. This knowledge is largely based on the writings of the classical authors (historians, playwrights, philosophers), and the manuscript evidence we have for most of these authors is slim. For instance, we have only 8 manuscript copies of Herodotus' history of the Greco-Persian wars, and the oldest copy is from about 900 A.D., more than 1300 years after Herodotus' original. The tragedies of Euripides are contained in 9 manuscripts, the oldest copy dating to over 1500 years after the originals. Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War survives in 8 manuscripts, the oldest dating to about 1300 years after the original. The comedies of Aristophanes are contained in 10 manuscripts, the oldest about 1200 years later than the originals. We have 7 manuscripts of Plato's works, the oldest 1200 years after the original writings. Julius Caesar's account of his conquest of Gaul survives in 10 manuscripts, 900 years later than the original. We have 7 manuscripts of the letters and speeches of Pliny the Younger, the oldest some 750 years after the original writings. The surviving works of Tacitus are contained in 2 manuscripts, 700 years after the originals.

How does the manuscript evidence for the Bible compare with this?

With the New Testament, more than twenty-four thousand early manuscripts have survived, and the oldest of these date to within decades of the original writings. There is no other ancient literature that even comes close to having as much manuscript evidence as the New Testament.

The reliability of the Old Testament is also supported with convincing evidence. Until 50 years ago, our earliest manuscript copies were from the 10th century A.D. Then, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, we suddenly had manuscripts of the Old Testament dating back to the 1st century B.C., and these older manuscripts were found to be virtually identical with their counterparts from a thousand years later!

Another kind of evidence is when archaeology corroborates the statements of the Bible. Here are a few examples:

Excavations begun at Nuzi in 1925 unearthed twenty-thousand clay tablets (written in a Babylonian cuneiform script) that reveal features of Mesopotamian customs, law, and social conditions that help explain the practices of the biblical patriarchs. For instance, when the dying Isaac discovered that his son Jacob had deceitfully obtained the oral blessing from him that was meant for Esau—the blessing that made Jacob head of the family and "all his relatives his servants"—why didn't Isaac retract the blessing? Because, the Nuzi tablets tell us, such oral proclamations were legally binding.

At one time people were skeptical of the story of Joseph—that a foreigner could be placed by Pharaoh "in charge of the whole land of Egypt." But archaeological discoveries have revealed that it was not uncommon for foreigners to rise to positions of authority in ancient Egypt. We have records of a Canaanite named Meri-ra becoming armor-bearer to Pharaoh; another Canaanite, named Ben-mat-ana, being appointed to the high position of interpreter; and the Amarna letters, the cuneiform tablets discovered in 1887 at Akhekaton, repeatedly refer to a Semite named Yanhamu, who acted as Pharaoh's viceroy in Syria in the 14th century B.C.

The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites is supported by archaeological excavations at such places as Hazor and Bethel, where layers of charred debris up to five feet thick were found and dated to the 13th century B.C.; and at such places as Shechem, Tanaach, and Beth Shan, which the Bible says were not conquered at this time, and where layers of destruction were not found for this time period.

The first discovery of a Philistine temple was made in 1972, at an excavation at Tell Qasile. The temple's roof was supported by two wooden pillars in the center. This design fit with the biblical description of the Philistine temple that Samson destroyed: "Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other... he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it."

The biblical statement that King Solomon built up the walls of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer is supported by the discoveries of nearly identical city gates at each of those three sites.

The biblical accounts of the conquests of Palestine by the Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser, Shalmaneser, Sargon and Sennacherib, are verified by Assyrian texts discovered at Nineveh and Calah, and by excavations of 8th century B.C. destruction layers at such sites as Shechem, Hazor, Megiddo and Lachish.

The biblical passage—"the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah that were still holding out—Lachish and Azekah. These were the only fortified cities left in Judah"—was vividly brought to life by the discovery at Lachish, in 1935, of correspondence, on broken pieces of pottery, between Yoash, military commander of Lachish at the time Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king) was closing in on Jerusalem, and Hoshaiah, a military officer stationed at an outpost or observation point near Lachish. One of Hoshaiah's letters reads: "For the fire-signals of Lachish we are watching, according to all the signs which my lord has given, for we cannot see Azekah..." (apparently Azekah had just fallen to the Babylonians).

The biblical record of the depopulation of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, and the decades of exile in Babylon, is confirmed by archaeology: many of the towns of Judah were destroyed at the beginning of the 6th century B.C. and never again occupied; others show destruction and then a period of abandonment before reoccupation. Not one town of Judah has been found to have been in continuous occupation over the period of the exile.

The biblical account of the release of the Jewish exiles by the king of Persia, Cyrus (who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.), is supported by, among other things, the discovery in Ur of a clay cylinder inscribed with a decree by Cyrus releasing all the captives of Babylon. The inscription included these words: "All of their peoples I assembled and restored to their own places."

For the New Testament the best supporting evidence we have is the 1st century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus, who writes about Jesus, his brother James, John the Baptist, the various kings and governors named Herod, Pontius Pilate, and so forth. Also, the Roman historian Tacitus, writing around 115 A.D., mentions "Christus," whom he says "suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus." And the historian Thallus, writing around 52 A.D., attempts to explain away the darkness that covered the land during Jesus' crucifixion as an eclipse of the sun.

There is the evidence from deductive reasoning.

For example, as hard as it is for some people to accept a supernatural event like Jesus' resurrection (which the Bible says more than 500 people were eyewitnesses to), how else can we reasonably explain the sudden explosion of the Christian faith? Those who ran away when Jesus was arrested, and were hiding behind locked doors after his crucifixion and burial, suddenly (beginning forty days later) are preaching to large crowds that Jesus is the messiah; are proclaiming—when told by the authorities to cease their teaching—that they "must obey God rather than men"; and are consequently being arrested, jailed, flogged, stoned to death.... What is it that removed their fear?

Which is the more logical conclusion? That the disciples stole Jesus' corpse from the tomb, made up a story about his "resurrection," and then were willing to die for this myth they had concocted? Or that Jesus really did rise from the dead?

And then there is the evidence of people's inner experiences.

In the Bible, Peter refers to this experience as a "new birth." John calls it being "born of God." Paul speaks of the "new self" and "rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." Jesus calls it being "born again," or "born from above," and he says that those who enter the kingdom of God are "born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." Paul explains that "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit," "a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit," and that Christ dwells in our hearts. Jesus says, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."

Billions of people, across the planet and across the centuries, have experienced the Risen Christ in this way.