Loosely tied to the idea of Biblical Inerrancy, one of the basic tenets of Christianity is that Scripture is reliable. This includes the idea of being reliable as a source of "doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).

Along with this, comes the assumption that the Bible is reliable historically.

Many of the books and passages in the Bible are written as a historic record of events.

Setting aside the fact that many people view some of those events as strictly allegorical, there are events that are clearly written as if they are actual history. The Exodus from Egypt, and the wandering in the promised land, for example. The history of Israel's cycle of turning from God, being punished/conquered/enslaved, then repenting and being liberated by God is another example. The Book of Acts, the life of Jesus, all of these are clearly written as if the events actually happened.

One of the more common attacks leveled against Christianity by its detractors is the statement that one event or another didn't really happen that way, or that the Bible isn't a reliable historical document - that we can't claim that the events that are recorded in the Bible actually happened, because using the Bible to prove itself is circular reasoning.

- How do you know Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected as recorded in the Bible? - Because the Bible says so. (Easy fodder for a non-believer to claim circular reasoning.)

However, is that really a fair representation of how to judge the historical reliability of Scripture? What, exactly, are the rules and arguments that apologists use to defend the historical accuracy of Scripture?


3 Answers 3


I'd like to start out by pointing out that history is a murky subject. We're all familiar with the saying that "history is always written by the winners". There are plenty of things that are accepted as historical fact that are either in dispute, or that are later proved false by new evidence. Just because something is regarded as reliable, accepted historical "fact" does not mean that it is, indeed a "fact" or Truth. This applies equally to secular history and the historical accounts recorded in Scripture.

There is another issue here, as well, in dealing with supernatural events as described in Scripture. It's covered pretty well at http://depts.drew.edu/jhc/hartlich.html in the "Thesis 2" section. In summary, it tells us that, as applied to Sacred Texts there is a limit to how much we can actually verify. It gives the example of Matthew 28 as follows:

Here it is related that — as the women came to the grave — a great earthquake took place, "for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women..."

Several paragraphs of detail go into the fact that we could, theoretically, verify that an earthquake took place, but not that it was caused by an Angel of the Lord. We could also not verify the appearance of said angel, nor the trembling of the guards. (But neither could we refute it.)

So, from the outset, the apologist acknowledges that we cannot prove or disprove the supernatural nature of events. We are limited to those things, and those things only that can be proved historically.

Failure to recognize this is to set us up immediately for straw-man attacks, and to be accused of circular reasoning.

That said, the first rule in determining historical accuracy to those events that we can verify is to use the same rules that would be applied to secular historical documents. Using a different set of rules to determine historical accuracy of Scripture is dishonest, and shows a bias that is not acceptable in applied historical methodology.

As much as I hate using Wikipedia as a source, the core principles are defined here in layman's terms much better than what I can find at other sources.

Core principles

The following core principles of source criticism were formulated by two Scandinavian historians, Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997):1

  • Human sources may be relics such as a fingerprint; or narratives such as a statement or a letter. Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
  • Any given source may be forged or corrupted. Strong indications of the originality of the source increase its reliability.
  • The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.
  • A primary source is more reliable than a secondary source which is more reliable than a tertiary source, and so on.
  • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
  • The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
  • If it can be demonstrated that the witness or source has no direct interest in creating bias then the credibility of the message is increased.


Bernheim (1889) and Langlois & Seignobos (1898) proposed a seven-step procedure for source criticism in history:2

  • If the sources all agree about an event, historians can consider the event proved.
  • However, majority does not rule; even if most sources relate events in one way, that version will not prevail unless it passes the test of critical textual analysis.
  • The source whose account can be confirmed by reference to outside authorities in some of its parts can be trusted in its entirety if it is impossible similarly to confirm the entire text.
  • When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with most "authority"—that is the source created by the expert or by the eyewitness.
  • Eyewitnesses are, in general, to be preferred especially in circumstances where the ordinary observer could have accurately reported what transpired and, more specifically, when they deal with facts known by most contemporaries.
  • If two independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is measurably enhanced.
  • When two sources disagree and there is no other means of evaluation, then historians take the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

Using this framework, apologists point to the fact that the Gospels, and many of the Scriptures were written by eyewitnesses to the accounts, as well as to internal textual criticism, additional supporting information from extra-Biblical texts (where they can be found), and from archaeology.

Based on archaeology alone, we have overwhelming evidence for the historical accuracy of much of the Bible. But, as the atheist point out, this still proves nothing about the supernatural aspects of Scripture.

Fortunately, the field of apologetics doesn't deal with proving the Truth of Scripture. As stated in a different answer, Christianity assumes a measure of faith. Apologetics deals with defending what is defensible from detractors, not proving anything.

When it comes to the supernatural, apologetics doesn't say "We can prove this happened as recorded in Scripture". However, arguments can be made, and questions can be asked about which proposed version of events is the most plausible, or reasonable.

Unfortunately, that's a grey area, and personal bias and preconceived notions will likely dictate what any one individual will think is "the most plausible explanation."

Therefore, the best we can do in trying to defend the supernatural aspects of the Bible is to say "this is one possible explanation. I believe it makes sense because.... Take it or leave it." This falls outside the realm of defensible apologetics and into debates over personal opinion based on interpretation of provable facts. Those provable facts may well be within the realm of "on-topic" for apologetics, but the unprovable portions are iffy. They may offer reasonable explanations, but nothing that will satisfy your typical "I won't believe it unless you can prove it to me" skeptic.

This is not to say that providing views on why you believe the supernatural aspects is wrong, or that it doesn't have a place in witnessing, or defending your beliefs. Just know the difference between what can be conclusively proven and what needs to be accepted by faith. You can be sure that most of the atheists and non-believers do, and are ready for this type of mistake.


For those who have grown up in the church or around the Bible for many years, giving a defense of the origins and reliability of the Bible is something they have not really looked into.

As you know, there are more and more people who have no such familiarity with or reverence for the scriptures. This is causing many believers to also question the historicity and veracity of the claims that Christianity stands upon, and that might not be all bad. Seeking the truth about the inspiration, writing, and transmission of the scriptures is something that every Christian can benefit from.

First, let’s look at some of the facts about how the Bible, specifically the New Testament, came to be. The subject of the New Testament documents is focused on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is fairly common knowledge and no one would deny it. Where things get interesting is in the order, means, and authors involved in producing this singly focused group of documents.

One thing that many people don’t realized due to the order in which we find the books in our present-day Bibles is that the original texts were actually produced in a very different order. If the New Testament was written to make use of historical figures and portray a sense of historical accuracy, it would make sense for the Gospels to have been written first as groundwork for the rest of the letters, histories, and prophecies to be based upon.

However, the Gospel records of Jesus’ life were in fact not the first books written. Several of Paul’s letters preceded even the earliest Gospel record (the book of Mark). This indicates that the good news was already out amongst the followers of Jesus, and that Paul was already in the midst of defending the truth of these stories among the culture before there had even been a written record. That wouldn’t make any sense if there was not already a consistent story of the life of Jesus.

All of that matters little though if all of the documents were written hundreds of years after the supposed events actually occurred and there was already a conspiracy in the works. That is not the case either, though. Those first letters of Paul have physical evidence that dates his writings back to about 50 A.D. while the first three written Gospels did not come into existence until between 60 and 70 A.D. Meanwhile, Revelation didn’t appear until closer to 90 A.D. with the rest of the Epistles, Acts, and the Gospel of John coming between. This doesn’t even take into account the outside sources that confirm the dates, figures, and events recorded in the New Testament.

Finally, as far as I am aware, archaeology is doing anything but attempting to prove the truth of the Bible. Modern archaeology seems to be on a mission to disprove the Bible. However, when the biblical texts being observed are so much more credible than even the most readily accepted ancient texts of other accepted people and events, it is difficult to dispute the validity of the Bible. For instance, the earliest copy known of anything written by Aristotle (Poetics) is a copy that existed about 1,400 years after Aristotle supposedly wrote it and there are only five total copies known to exist. Contrast this with the over 5,500 copies of all or part of the New Testament which date back as early as 90-100 A.D. Archaeology has only confirmed the biblical writings, despite its best efforts otherwise, because it has to.

These are just a few examples of the historical backing for the truth of the Bible. I didn’t even touch on the fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies that appear in the New Testament. There are several useful resources on the development of the canon of scripture. A couple are: The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? and The Canon of Scripture, both by F. F. Bruce. I would encourage you to continue seeking out the truth about the origins and validity of the Bible.

  • Welcome! Thanks for contributing. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 17:56
  • 1
    "archaeology is doing anything but attempting to prove the truth of the Bible" - and so is modern historiography. "This biblical person is not mentioned in any other source: it definitely proves that no such person could have ever existed! Ohh, this other biblical event is described by other sources as well: this definitely proves that it's just a piece of myth stolen from another religion". If you have no outside source: it didn't happen. If you have outside source: it means the story was stolen from some other culture.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 7:10
  • The story was stolen from other culture? What are you saying Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 13:33

The rules used by scholars to establish the historical accuracy, or otherwise, of scripture are not always those used by apologists to defend the historical accuracy of scripture. One set of rules can, at least sometimes, lead to an unintended conclusion, while the other will always defend scriptural historicity.

Archaeology is useful, and indeed some archaeological evidence helps establish the historical accuracy of parts of the Old Testament, but other archaeological evidence seems to go the other way, so some apologists will selectively use the available evidence.

The historicity of the Old Testament is defended in part because many of the books are thought to have been written by prophets, who wrote about events in their own time and spoke the word of God. Of course, this returns us to using the Bible to prove that the Bible is historically accurate, and to circular reasoning. The Book of Genesis is widely regarded as absolutely historical because it is said to have been dictated to Moses by God. The historicity of Genesis is no longer readily defensible, since critical scholars no longer accept Moses as the author, and dispute whether Moses ever lived.

Apologists believe that two of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events portrayed. They say that not only are multiple witnesses bound to be more reliable as proof that the events really did occur, but that all witnesses to any event will sometimes disagree on the detail, proving in this case that there was no collusion in the writing of the gospels. Unfortunately, this argument has fallen out of favour, as it is now known that one gospel, Mark, was the main source of information about Jesus that was used by the authors of the other gospels, and that none of the gospel authors was likely to have been an eyewitness to the mission of Jesus.

Howard C. Kee says in 'After the Crucifixion – Christianity through Paul', published in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism (edited by Hershel Shanks), page 89, that estimates of the value of Acts as a reliable historical source have varied widely, ranging from dismissal as propaganda and pious fiction to full acceptance as historically reliable. One of the best cases for the historicity of Acts is the presence of so much trivial detail in place names, topographical and travel details, and titles of local officials.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .