Tag Archives: Biblical reliability

Manuscript Errors

An erasure in the Codex Sinaiticus manuscript

In preparing to write about Nicolas Copernicus recently, I bought a 2-volume set of his complete works, translated into English (a big help since I am only beginning my study of Latin). However, I wasn’t expecting a translation of a Christian astronomer’s theories in the 1500’s to help me better understand how we can be confident in the integrity of biblical manuscripts from a thousand years earlier. How so? Let’s “sharpen our pencils,” as we say in engineering, and work through this problem.

The translator’s notes on the Commentariolus, Copernicus’ first draft of his geokinetic theory[1],  caught my eye for several reasons. First, we don’t have any surviving copies of the original treatise that Copernicus had dispatched to a few close friends. Second, Copernicus never put any title or claim of authorship on it. We owe that to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe years later. These are such common objections from skeptics regarding surviving Gospel manuscripts and their lack of direct claim of authorship, and yet in other historical investigations, those circumstances aren’t deal-breakers.  But third, and most significant to me, was how the original content could be rebuilt from copies with errors.

We have 2 surviving copies made from one of the originals by professional scribes hired by Brahe. These are known as the “S” and “V” manuscripts for Stockholm and Vienna, where they eventually came to reside, respectively. A third manuscript, known as “A” for Aberdeen, was made by a student copying the text of Commentariolus into the margins of his copy of Copernicus’ Revolutions in an abbreviated fashion. One scribe, it seems, was copying the original text by sight, and got off a line. He saw the same word (“orbis”) he’d just written used 6 words later, and proceeded from that point, skipping those intervening words, and garbling the sentence. The other scribe did not make the same mistake there, so that portion could be reconstructed from his copy. He did make his share of mistakes in other places, though. One in particular, was the writing of the words “ac si” for the word “axi”, a mistake that only made sense if he were taking dictation. The two sound similar, so he wrote what he thought he heard. Even if he were to read it back to the one dictating, it would sound correct. Since the first scribe was seeing the original words, he was not liable to that type of auditory error, but he was susceptible to visual errors like skipping a line. Now with only two formal copies of a text, we are able to be quite comfortable that we have the message of the autograph (the original manuscript) intact. Even the “A” manuscript, not attempting to be a word-for-word formal copy,  has still proven useful for corroborating some differences between the 2 formal copies, which were made by copyists likely not trained in astronomy. That’s because the “A” copy was made by another scholar who was  able to spot some of the copying errors in the manuscript he was reading (based on a non-surviving sister copy of the “S” manuscript) and correct them, thus bringing his copy into agreement with manuscript “V” which he never saw. The point, is the more copies we have of a manuscript, even partial copies, the more confidently we can reconstruct the original message.[2]

This is the same tactic used in data backup with RAID storage. RAID is an acronym for Redundant Array of Independent Drives. There are different levels of redundancy with RAID 0, RAID 1, all the way up to RAID 6 (currently). But the basic idea is that different hard drives will not all crash at the same time, and will not all get corrupted at the same data location. This means that if one drive crashes, the data on it can be reconstructed from the remaining drives in the array. Or if a particular file goes “bad” and won’t open anymore, the system can rebuild that file from the information in the other drives.

Now, consider how we have reconstructed an original amount of data from 2 copies of a manuscript, or from several computer drives. Do you see why objections that we don’t have any original biblical manuscripts fall flat? Or why the comparisons of the Bible to the “telephone game” don’t really pose a problem? We have thousands of manuscripts, and we keep finding more and more of them. Are they all complete? No, many are only fragments, but they overlap with other copies to provide better redundancy than any other ancient manuscript. Do some have copying errors? Sure. Do some have additions? Yes. But witness the genius of God, in that He basically set up a geographically-distributed redundant array of data stores for His Word from which we can reasonably reconstruct the original. Just as some of Copernicus’ manuscripts that only had one surviving copy were destroyed in different wars throughout Europe, one original manuscript of the Bible would be a very fragile thing. But a worldwide network of copies could never be taken out by floods, or earthquakes, or wars, or vandalism. The absence of an original manuscript isn’t a liability, it’s actually evidence of brilliant planning. But that’s the kind of God we serve.


[1] Commonly called the “heliocentric” theory, Copernicus technically theorized that the sun was near the center of the known universe of the time, not necessarily at the center. His primary postulate was that the earth moved, so “geokinetic” is more technically correct.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus – Complete Works, Volume 2: Minor Works, translation & commentary by Edward Rosen & Erna Hilfstein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Paperbacks, 1992), pp. 75-80.

Communications from the Creator

engineering-plans Today I want to offer a modest proposal: that God acting in human history is a reasonable possibility. What I offer here is by no means a “proof”, in even the loosest sense of the word, of the existence of the personal, relational, God of Christianity. But it is, I hope, something that opens the door to possibilities you might have dismissed out of hand in the past.

I’ve heard some very intelligent people through the years say they could agree to the need for a Creator or Supreme Being to “get things started”, but the idea of a personal, interacting God as Christianity describes is a bridge too far for them. This conviction may be due to the fine-tuning of the universe or the amazingly precise information management system of our DNA, or from the recognition of the implications of the law of causality and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This idea that God is a distant “Watchmaker” who wound up the universe and and walked away is typically known as deism, but this is not what the Bible advocates. In fact, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes “And without faith it is impossible to please Him {God}, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”[1] There are two requirements listed here: 1) accept the fact that God does indeed exist, and 2) accept that God will respond to our seeking. In other words, God is not the uninterested, detached god of deism, but rather one who interacts in human history.

We see so much apparent design in our natural world, that we have to ask if there was a designer. And if there was, would that designer leave any kind of message to convey intent regarding his “product”? You can review some of the reasons for believing in a Creator/Designer based on the Teleological Argument (or the argument from design) here, but this really doesn’t take us past the the idea of basic theism, that some god exists. It may be one or more gods; it may be a god who did indeed get the universe started, but who no longer exists for some reason; or it may be that deadbeat god of deism who gets things started and walks away.

Seeing design aspects in nature, I tend to think of God’s designs in terms of engineering. As an engineer, when I design a building, I invest myself in that design. I care about what happens to it. And so I write instructions pertaining to various stages of its lifecycle. A project will typically have sheets of “general notes” on our drawings, and sometimes hundreds or thousands of pages of project specifications.  All of this is to detail what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of construction materials, building loads and uses, acceptable substitutions, and so on. I don’t just say, “Make it work,” and leave the contractor to guess how to meet the building requirements without any instructions. I’m not going to design a mezzanine and tell the client, “Here’s a mezzanine design for your warehouse, but I’m not going to tell you if it’s rated for a 300 psf load capacity or only 50 psf. Don’t worry – you’ll figure it out pretty quickly once you start stacking boxes on it. If it starts sagging, you’ve exceeded my design.” That would be crazy. When we go to the effort to design something, we try to leave instructions regarding our intent for its proper use. The more complex the design, the more important the instructions are. It seems reasonable to me that if God exists, and put so much incredible planning into this universe, this world, and us as humans, He would provide some “documentation,” so to speak. Now, we have a collection of documents – the Bible – that does, in fact, claim to be a message from this Creator, addressed to His creation.

But how could one know if such a book really is what it says it is? There are a couple of ways. One is to check the accuracy of statements made in it that we can confirm historically and archeologically. If we find its record of history confirmed independently, through other sources, then we are warranted in trusting it to some degree.  In this, the Bible has been confirmed repeatedly. Many things mentioned in the Bible aren’t recorded elsewhere, though. Or if they were, those corroborating sources have been destroyed or are yet to be found. However, when we find archeological evidence for the truth of the biblical records,  in the absence of outside sources, that is a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the Bible. For while we might say that biblical authors were simply copying from their contemporary authors (and so of course they matched up), finding an actual town or a monument to a king or ruler that no other sources besides the Bible ever mentioned is very hard to refute. This has also been been the case with the Bible on multiple occasions. So we have a collection of writings from multiple authors spanning well over a millennium that presents a coherent, historically accurate, archeologically-verified record of events. But it also claims that all of this is due to the divine inspiration of its writers by the all-knowing Creator of the universe, and that He used them to convey His message to humanity. That would explain the historical reliability of it in its accounts of natural history. So could it be telling the truth in its record of supernatural history as well? When Luke records the minutest details about people and places visited, and these are repeatedly confirmed, should we not at least entertain the possibility that he may be telling us the truth when he records miracles as well?

Secondly, there is the issue of prophecy. Anyone who has ever watched the weather forecast knows that it is extremely difficult for us humans to predict events even a few days in advance. Yet the Bible contains prophecies that were made hundreds of years in advance of their fulfillment. While some prophecies might be vague enough to be rationalized, I want to point out one I’ve always found particularly interesting in its specificity. Isaiah 44 and 45 record a prophecy that a specific king named Cyrus would set the captives free, restore Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple there, without asking for payment or reward. This was fulfilled 150 years later when Cyrus, King of Medo-Persia, allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild their city and the Temple, and even provided them with money to purchase building materials. Predicting the name of a future foreign ruler generations in advance is beyond any natural human abilities and does speak to the supernatural inspiration of the Bible.

In summary, I think the corroborating historical records and archeological evidence, combined with fulfilled prophecy, point to the legitimacy of the Bible’s claim of divine inspiration. And if it is divine communication, then this is truly the most important message ever put into human language, and it is incumbent on all of us to study it relentlessly. For in so doing, we learn not only of a God powerful enough to create a perfectly-planned, finely-tuned universe out of nothing, but also of a God who loves each of us more than we can ever understand, enough that He entered into human history to offer reconciliation and redemption to a rebellious and ungrateful humanity. And that, my friend, is the God I serve.


[1] Hebrews 11:6.
[2] Isaiah 44:24-28 & 45:1-13.

Permanence

churchAs an engineer, most of the states I’m licensed in require that I take continuing education courses to keep up with new technology, new laws and codes, new analysis methods, and so forth. A recent email advertised a webinar on “Design Considerations for Wood Frame Construction for Permanence.” I admit, I work primarily with steel, and live in a part of the US with high humidity and termites, so I tend to not associate the words “wood” and “permanence”. But the picture in the email caught my eye because it was something I’ve had the opportunity to see for myself: a Norwegian Stave Church. These are wooden church buildings built in Norway in the Middle Ages, with the oldest surviving one being almost 900 years old. That’s about as permanent as you can get with wood construction! They are beautiful buildings to walk through, and a real testament to the craftsmanship of those early builders.

That reminder of permanence made me think of a project I played a small part in recently, at the opposite end of the spectrum, where I did some steel connection design for a new multipurpose community center being built in a nearby city. What was surprising about that project was that this new building was being built over an old airport. In fact, the swimming pool was going to be practically in the middle of where the runway had been. Now, an airport is usually a big infrastructure investment for a city. Yet that airport was being demolished to build a community athletic center. Soon there will be no evidence left of this significant land use other than a few oddly aviation-related street names, and a listing in outdated maps that will get replaced shortly. Eventually, streets will be renamed and/or rerouted, and there will be no physical evidence left that there was ever an airport there. So it is with much of what we design and build. Even when we design for an indefinite service life, most of our finished projects will likely be demolished at some point because their location is more valuable for some future enterprise than the building we invested so much time in designing.

What will archaeologists 1000 years from now find to tell them about our culture? With our culture’s emphasis on updating, recycling, “planned obsolescence”, and designing for defined product lifecycles instead of indefinite use, would future people be able to ascertain any specific details of our civilization? Especially in our digital age, there is surprisingly little durable evidence of much of what we do. That’s something to keep in mind when approaching the Bible. We don’t have physical evidence for everything described in the Bible, but it’s actually pretty amazing that we have any evidence from so long ago.  And what we have found matches up well with what the Bible describes. Rather than look at the absence of confirming evidence as a strike against the Bible as so many have, look at how much is confirmed. As the archeologist Sir William Ramsey found when he went to Asia Minor in the late 1800’s to investigate the historicity of the biblical book of Acts, the evidence speaks for itself. In fact, he tells us that “I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, …. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[1] You see, Ramsey approached the case regarding the authorship of Acts from the then-currently espoused view that Acts was written by an anonymous Christian centuries after the events described, motivated more by pushing an agenda than telling the truth. But he was open to other possibilities and willing to follow the evidence wherever it led him. And it led him to the conviction that Luke was the author of Acts and was an eyewitness and was, in fact, a historian of impeccable quality. In the 100+ years since Ramsay investigated the claims of the Bible, even more corroborating evidence has been discovered to support the book of Acts and many other accounts in the Bible (read more here).

We live in a constantly changing world where permanence is a very relative term. “Here today, gone tomorrow”, as the saying goes. Knowing that, a lack of evidence for historical events shouldn’t surprise us. Many ancient events took place in oral cultures where little was written down. Even when they were recorded, those records have often been lost forever due to wars, political purges, floods, fires, earthquakes, and other destructive events. But when we have a record like the Bible that continues to be confirmed over and over again,  we have to set aside whatever skepticism we approached it with, and be willing to admit when we’ve gone beyond “reasonable” doubt. As Ramsay would say, “We must face the facts boldly.”[2] When we do, we find that they lead straight to God.


[1] William Ramsay,  St Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (Illustrated), Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 304-309.
[2] ibid., Location 390.

The Engineer’s Faith

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

Engineering and faith might not be two words you normally associate, but faith is nevertheless an integral part of our profession. What tends to obscure this relationship for many today is the rather antagonistic definition of faith promoted by atheists as “belief in spite of the evidence.” Certainly, that is the last characteristic you’d want in the engineer designing your new home/office/hospital/school/etc. But as I’ve written extensively on this site (here especially), that is not the biblical definition of faith. Biblical faith is rather a warranted trust, or looking at the Greek root for the word, a divine persuasion. Let’s look at a scenario that exemplifies the correlation between biblical faith and “engineering faith”.

Suppose I told a client that an existing column in a building being renovated would need to be reinforced or replaced, at significant cost, or else it would fail under the new loads the owner wanted to add. Now suppose the owner didn’t like this and wanted to argue about whether this was really necessary (yes, this does happen). He could ask whether I’d ever actually seen a column that big fail. Or, supposing that part of the issue was tied to increased seismic loads on the existing structure caused by this new addition, he might ask if I’d ever experienced an earthquake, because he had, and it wasn’t that bad… In both cases, I’d have to answer “no”. So what is my basis for saying he needs to perhaps double the cost of his renovation? My trusted engineering books. Here’s why:

  • I trust the authors. While I’ve never personally seen a large column fail, I don’t have to have personally seen it to know it can truly happen. Various people over the years have performed tests, witnessed the results, and applied reason and logic to sift through the noise and ascertain the essence of different phenomena. Then they distilled all of that down into some of the elegantly simple theories we still use today. They have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy with their meticulous attention to detail, their investigative diligence, and their relentless pursuit of the truth about how structures behave.
  • I trust their records. These early pioneers and those coming after them have written down very detailed accounts of these tests, their results, and their reasoning for how far their theories can be expected to be applicable to similar conditions. These have been preserved (or at least copies have been) for future generations of inquisitive engineers like myself. Names like Euler and Timoshenko still cast their shadows on much of our work long after they died.
  • I trust the transmittal of their works. Our engineering textbooks and reference books faithfully transmit these principles to my generation of engineers, even though we are far removed from the original authors, and may not have the resources to reproduce their findings. Their theories are also reproduced in a variety of books. If one publisher made an error in Euler’s column buckling formula, for instance, it could be readily verified by comparing it against other reference books on the same topic.

So then, even though I have never personally witnessed a W14x90 column fail in an earthquake, I can trust that my various books have reliably passed down to me the true results of research by trustworthy men indicating that would be the outcome in my example. The end result being that I can put some amount of faith – or trust – in what I’ve learned and apply it to the current project. Of course, men are still fallible, and their theories might be mistaken, but these basic principles are have stood the test of time sufficiently to persuade me to trust them.

Now, how does that relate to my Christian faith?

  • I can trust the biblical authors. God used a unique mix of people to write the Bible. Just looking at the New Testament, the first apostles were simple fishermen, who brought a simple, down-to-earth, eyewitness testimony to their records. Theirs was a record that said, “whether you believe me or not, I cannot tell otherwise, for this is what I saw, and heard, and felt – no more, no less.” Luke was a doctor who sought to record “a more orderly account” of the life of Christ. His account is an extremely detailed, first-rate history that has proven itself accurate over and over again. Paul was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish religious law, himself taught by one of the leading teachers of his day. He explained the deep richness of the simple gospel message, connecting it to the whole backstory of the Old Testament. But in each case, these men have shown themselves to be trustworthy instruments of the infallible God.
  • I can trust their findings. Luke’s geography and description of various cultures of the time are born out by archeology. When Paul describes the fallen nature of mankind, he describes the world I observe; the results of his examination match reality. But moreover, he holds up a mirror to my own heart. I need look no further than my own life to recognize the soundness of his words.
  • I can trust the transmission of their records to me. They wrote early after the events they described, these writings were copied carefully, and on a massive scale far exceeding any other historical manuscripts, such that the integrity of their writings are adequately preserved by comparison of the variances between dispersed copies.

We all place our faith (or trust) in people and things that may prove all too fallible: the pilot of the plane you’re about to board, the engineer who designed the school you send your kids to, the political leader that promised you the moon, or objects as simple as the new tires on your car that you trust to not have a blowout.  But there’s really only One who warrants our complete trust. Have you studied His textbook, the Bible?

Digging up Fairy Tales

Ruins in Ephesus, by Valeria RestucciaI’ve heard the Bible referred to as a collection of fairy tales, superstitions, myths, legends – fiction by whatever name you want to call it. But this got me thinking. Nobody goes looking for the ruins of Prince Charming’s castle or Captain Hook’s pirate ship. Nobody does this because they’re fairy tales. But, if someone did find the ruins of the lost city of Atlantis, or some other fairy tale/myth/legend, what would we decide? That it wasn’t just a story. Physical remains of the events of a story point to the story being actual history rather than make-believe. How then does the Bible compare? Is there actual evidence for the events recorded in it? Actually, there’s quite a bit, and the list is growing all the time. Let’s look at just a few examples.

At one time, people didn’t believe that Pontius Pilate really existed as the Bible was the earliest and most descriptive  source telling of him.[1] That was before archaeologists found the “Pilate Stone” in Caesarea Maritima in 1961. This stone’s inscription tells that “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea”, had dedicated a stadium to the Emperor. This is actual physical evidence from his lifetime corroborating the Bible narrative.[2]

Skeptics since the 1800’s have doubted the authenticity of Luke’s writings in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts in the Bible. For example, skeptics doubted Luke’s use of different official titles when describing the different encounters with tetrarchs[3], politarchs[4], asiarchs[5], proconsuls[6], and other positions in different cities. In the case of the politarchs of Thessalonica, Luke’s was the only account to use that term, and so it was seen as a historical discrepancy. Now, we have found over 32 inscriptions bearing the name “politarch”, 19 from Thessalonica, and 3 of those 19 from the first century. This has led John McRay to say that it is now “incontrovertible” that politarchs existed before and during the time of Luke’s writing.[7] In fact, 84 different historical facts in the last 16 chapters of the book of Acts have been confirmed through various archaeological finds or historical literature corroborations.[8] For the skeptic who honestly investigates the subject, it is difficult to not arrive at the same conclusion that Sir William Ramsay, the British archaeologist of the 1800’s did: “I began with a mind unfavorable to it [Acts]…. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[9] His research led him from skepticism to placing Luke “among the historians of the first rank.”[10]

Looking further back, King David of Israel was believed to be a myth until the Tel Dan inscription was uncovered in 1993 that told of another king’s victory over a “son of Jehoram king of the House of David”. This was the first archaeological evidence found for King David.[11]

Christianity has always been unique in its appeal to evidence, both by Jesus and his first followers.[12] But that support has increased dramatically over the last century, and shows no signs of changing. Not only that, but the evidence that has been found consistently affirms the Biblical account. We aren’t being asked to believe in fairy tales, but rather in a reasonable account of God’s interaction with humanity as recorded through eyewitness testimony of actual historical events.


[1] John 18-19, among other references.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilate_Stone, accessed 8/30/2015.
[3] Luke 3:1, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:6, Greek-English Interlinear translation (πολιτάρχας = politarchus). Sometimes translated as “leaders of the city” in English.
[5] Acts 19:31, Greek-English Interlinear translation (Ἀσιαρχῶν = Asiarchon). Sometimes translated as “officials of the province in English.
[6] Acts 18:12, NASB.
[7] John McRay, Paul:His Life & Teaching, 2007, p. 152.
[8] Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, 1990, as quoted in chapter 10 of Geisler and Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, 2004, p. 256-9. The list is also reproduced online at  http://truthbomb.blogspot.com/2012/01/84-confirmed-facts-in-last-16-chapters.html, accessed 8/29/2015.
[9] Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1896, Kindle Edition, Location 309.
[10] ibid, Location 254.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Dan_Stele, accessed 9/1/2015.
[12] Luke 7:18-23 (Jesus), 2 Peter 1:16-18 (Peter), 1 John 1:1-3 (John), NASB.

Reliable Transmission

Isaiah Scroll vs Camera smallI talked to an atheist colleague recently who said that if Jesus appeared on the front steps of the capitol here in Little Rock in all His splendor, and did some miracles and ascended up in front of the TV crews, then he would be the first to bend the knee. But otherwise, he wouldn’t believe.

I told him that Jesus did make an appearance just under 2000 years ago, and did miracles for 3 years, and 4 biographers wrote about it, testified about it, and published their accounts, and we still read them today. He responded that those didn’t count, and that we couldn’t trust that eyewitness testimony. Interesting. I asked how we could know that George Washington existed. He said that we had historical records to prove it. Yes… from eyewitnesses like Ben Franklin saying that George was there at the Constitutional Convention… so why believe Ben and the other eyewitness patriots more than John and the other eyewitness apostles?

Also, why does Jesus need to come and prove Himself over and over again to each and every person throughout time? He’s not some genie in a bottle at our beck and call. If Jesus really was God, isn’t it a little arrogant to tell Him, “Once wasn’t enough. I won’t believe until you come and do a personal song and dance for me.” Seriously?

I told him that if he saw Jesus and believed, that would be a pretty momentous occasion, and he would probably want to document that on his own, in addition to the TV crews. Maybe with pen and paper, or on a blog, or social media, or a little cell phone video, something. Now what would someone say who finds some documentation left behind by him of this momentous event 2000 years from now? (Assuming that any of the video he counts as strong evidence survived more than a few years.) Their skepticism of my friend’s account in no way discounts the truthfulness of his recording what happened. If it happened, it happened, whether or not he documents it sufficiently to justify skeptics 2000 years from now who might argue that they won’t believe it because he only used video and not whatever super-realistic holographic sci-fi ways they have of documenting events in the future. Whether I testify in court, or write down what happened for you to read, or (now) record the audio/video of an event, or use some as yet nonexistent technology, the event objectively happened. Method of transmission doesn’t change the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony of an event.